Records: Lakers 20-25 (10th in the West), Suns 15-30 (T 14th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.9 (6th in the NBA), Suns 99.7 (24th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (20th in the NBA), Suns 104.8 (24th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Suns: Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (out for the season); Suns: Channing Frye (out for the season), Jermaine O’Neal (out)
The Lakers Coming in: And so it begins. The Grammy trip is here and the Lakers are starting it playing some of their better basketball of the season, winning 3 in a row. Offensively, the ball is moving, players are moving, and shots are falling. Defensively, players seem more sure of what they’re supposed to be doing while also exhibiting the type of trust that their teammate will be there for them when forced to rotate. As Dwight said after last night’s win, they are holding each other accountable better now and even though there are still breakdowns, the team is still doing the right thing more often than not.
Of course the other story from the win over the Hornets was the fact that Pau didn’t play in the 4th quarter again. When asked about this (Pau did not bring this up on his own), Pau expressed he didn’t like it. My two thoughts on this are pretty simple. I like that Pau is being honest about this. He was asked a direct question and he gave a direct answer. No need to mince words, answer honestly and move on. Second, Pau should be upset about this. He’s a competitor. He wants to play. I happen to like it when Pau has a bit of an edge to his game and if things like this help bring that out, I’m okay with that.
As for D’Antoni, he went with the lineup that he did and, really, that’s that. I had my concerns about it as it was happening, I expressed them, but the team won and that’s the biggest goal. In re-watching the 4th quarter last night, I got the sense that D’Antoni was going to rest everyone in the 4th quarter but the game started to take a strange turn right under the 6 minute mark. After Nash and Kobe came in, the game continued to slip away and D’Antoni let his guys play through it. By the time there were 3 minutes left, the game was very close and he decided to let the group that was in the game close it out, win or lose. Well, they won. And, in the process, both Pau and Ron sat down the stretch of a game that ended up being close even though it shouldn’t have been. If the Lakers keep their 14-18 point lead, the fact that Pau sat isn’t a story at all. And, since the team still won, I don’t think it is anyway.
The Suns Coming in: The Suns have had a bit of a rocky season thus far. They’re currently last in the Pacific Division and are tied for the worst record in the conference. A summer that saw them trade Nash, acquire multiple new players (Dragic, Scola, Beasley) that were expected to contribute, and draft their point guard of the future (Kendall Marshall) hasn’t produced very good results. So, as most teams do that play poorly and can’t fire all the players, the Suns and Alvin Gentry parted was after 41 games and a 13-28 record. The crux of the parting was that Gentry wanted to continue to play the veteran players who’d been earning their minutes and management wanted to play the young players in order to get them experience. If that wasn’t controversial enough, though, replacing Gentry with player development director Lindsey Hunter instead of one of the coaches that was on staff has also caused a stir. Dan Majerle — who was on Gentry’s staff — spoke out about not getting the job and now he, like Gentry, has moved on from the organization.
So, here the Suns are. A mismatched roster with the hope that the young players on their team will develop, but with little evidence to show that they will this season. Next year they can only hope to get another high draft pick (while also hoping the Lakers miss the playoffs since they’ll also get L.A.’s pick if it’s in the lottery) and then rebuild with youth. Whether this works remains to be seen (I have my doubts), but it’s a plan.
Suns Blogs: Check out Valley of the Suns for great coverage of this team.
Keys to game: Tonight, of course, is about more than just the Lakers trying to stay on track after they leave the friendly confines of Staples. Tonight Steve Nash returns to Phoenix for the first time since asking to be traded to the Lakers this past July. For Nash, a franchise icon who will see his #13 jersey hang in the rafters one day, it will likely be a pretty emotional night. The fans will likely welcome him back with cheers early (and I’m assuming a lengthy highlight clip), but may not be as kind as the night goes on (players wearing Lakers’ jerseys in Phoenix aren’t well liked, you know). Nash can also see first hand what he’s left behind in terms of a team. While the Lakers’ struggles are real, the Suns are even worse and that may also leave him conflicted as he sees some former teammates toil.
In any event, a game will still be played and this is where Nash and the rest of the Lakers must take the emotion of the night and turn it on its head and in their favor. The Lakers enter the better team and it’s better they come out to show that early and not let the home team hang around. The Lakers have been a poor road team this year so a quick start would do wonders for them to get some early momentum.
Offensively that means sticking to the script and making the Suns adjust. It’s unclear whether Tucker or Dudley will start out on Kobe, but the approach should be the same. Let Kobe work foul line and below and try to get good shots for himself and teammates by establishing the mid-post. If the help comes, Kobe can move the ball. If the D stays home, he can attack or reset the offense with Nash up high.
If Nash does reset (or if they don’t go to Kobe in any given set), the P&R then becomes pretty important. Last night the Lakers killed the Vasquez/Lopez duo and their slow feet with high P&R’s. Tonight, Dragic and Gortat offer more of a challenge but can still be taken advantage of. The key is to set a good screen and then get into the roll quickly in order to attack the secondary defender who slides down to help. Last night that was Anthony Davis. Tonight, though, it will be Luis Scola. The difference in athleticism between those two is gulf-like and it should encourage Nash to threaten Gortat with the dribble to occupy them and then throw lobs to Dwight as Scola tries to help on the roll. If the action is working well, Howard should start out hot early or at least set up the types of openings around the wing to get Clark and Ron good looks.
Defensively, the Lakers will likely feel like they’re facing a version of themselves. Dragic and Gortat want to run the high P&R while the other players space out to try and spread the Lakers thin. Scola will serve in the Gasol role as an outlet around the elbow should the action break down and he must be accounted for there since he’s capable of hitting that jumper. Dudley will likely be camped in the weak side corner and be waiting for spot up chances to come his way. Tucker is not a great shooter but can finish well on the move and must also be accounted for.
So the Lakers will need to rotate well and understand their assignments well. I expect some cross matching again tonight with Nash likely guarding Tucker, Kobe on Dragic, and Clark on Dudley. This will leave Ron to guard Scola who mustn’t be allowed to get back to his right hand, regardless of how many fakes and spins he throws at him. Ron will need to have discipline to stay on his feet and shade Scola back to his left. Kobe on Dragic is the other key, of course, and it will be a tough test for Bean. Dragic’s herky-jerky style coming off picks is one that typically gives Kobe issues (think Ginobili and Harden) and with Dragic’s ability to shoot or turn the corner, there will be some cat and mouse action going on. Ultimately Kobe will need to funnel Dragic towards help and then recover in time to make sure the D isn’t compromised. If he can do that without killing his legs, he’ll be in good shape tonight.
The other key will be the battle of the benches. The Suns have an interesting mix of scorers on their pine, including Beasley, Markieff Morris, and Shannon Brown. That trio will likely see a lot of time against the Lakers trio of Gasol, Jamison, and Meeks. Whoever has the better night between those two units will highly influence the outcome of this game. The Suns group must not be allowed to find their stride offensively and must be pressured into taking bad shots. Beasley is more than welcome to oblige on that front, but he can still be dangerous as a shot maker. Just something to be aware of.
Tonight promises to be emotionally taxing. And considering the Lakers just played last night, it could be taxing physically and mentally as well. The Lakers will need to find a way to fight through any sort of fatigue and be the better team early to get momentum on their side. The starts of each half will be crucial in this regard so, here’s hoping for quick starts in the 1st and 3rd quarters to set the tone for each half. Do that, and we could be talking about 4 straight at the end of the night.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and on ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.