Preview and Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Darius Soriano —  February 12, 2013

Records: Lakers 24-28 (10th in the West), Suns 17-35 (Last in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (8th in the NBA), Suns 99.0 (27th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (T 17th in the NBA), Suns 105.2 (26th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Suns: Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, PJ Tucker, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Suns: Channing Frye (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are finally home, a 4-3 record on the Grammy Trip in their back pockets. The team has won seven of their last 10, the wins the product of a shifting offensive style, some better defensive performances, and steadier play from the reserves. There are still plenty of issues to sort out (especially on the court) and obstacles to overcome (especially Pau’s injury), of course. And, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers make any sort of smaller personnel moves to try and fortify their roster for the stretch run after the all-star break. But, overall, if this team is able to win 70% of their remaining games, we’ll all be satisfied and they’ll be right there in the hunt for one of final playoff spots. Whether this current formula has that type of staying power remains to be seen, but the fact is, this is the level they need build up from in order to get where they want to go.

UPDATE: Uh, this isn’t good news:

There’s a possibility Clark still plays tonight should the MRI show nothing significant. That said, this season continues to confound and frustrate on the injury front. With Gasol already out and inconsistency and depth issues persisting on the wings, Clark — once the Lakers 14th man — has become a vital player to their success through is versatility on both ends and better than expected offensive game. To state the obvious, missing him would be a major blow.

We’ll update this thread as we know more, but for now, let’s collectively wish Earl Clark some good results on his MRI.

UPDATE II: Earl Clark will play tonight against the Suns:

Obviously very good news for a Laker team that can’t afford to have any other players out with injury. We’ll have to see if Clark is in any way limited, however. If he’s not up to playing heavy minutes, that may mean more minutes for Jamison or lineups with Ron at PF, Kobe at SF, and either Blake or Meeks at SG.

The Suns Coming in: The Suns have lost seven of ten and are coming off back to back defeats to the Thunder in a home and home series. In the second of those games, the Suns flirted with a franchise low for points, scoring one point more than the low of 68. That contest saw no starter score double figures and only one Sun (Markieff Morris) break that threshold (12 points on 13 shots) all night. And while that game represented a low for the Suns, it’s also indicative of where they are as a franchise. This team, for all intents and purposes, is one of the worst in the league. They have ill-fitting parts and seem to lack chemistry and togetherness when they play.

What’s strange is that the team is currently popping up in trade rumors to try and improve their team with names like Al Jefferson and Iman Shumpert popping up lately. Whether there’s any truth to these reports is less important than whether or not the Suns know what they have in their current group and if they have a plan moving forward. What seems best for this team is to play out the season, get a high draft pick and start their rebuilding process through the draft. During the off-season they can look to trade some of their veteran role players for more draft picks or young players with upside and continue their trek up the rebuilding mountain. Because what they’re doing now certainly shows that they need to think about their future, not mortgage it by giving up picks or any of their young players to try and improve the roster today.

Suns Blogs: Check out Valley of the Suns for insight and analysis on L.A.’s Pacific Division rival.

Keys to game: The first game back from a long road trip is typically a difficult one to navigate. After being away from the all the comforts of home, teams often have let downs after sleeping in their own beds and returning to a bit of normalcy after living out of a suitcase for nearly two weeks. The Lakers, then, will need to concentrate on bringing their best effort tonight, even though the Suns aren’t a very good team.

What may help to counter against a letdown is the fact that the Lakers just lost to this team on the first game of the Grammy Trip. After being up big in that game, Dwight Howard injured his shoulder and then the starters came in to close out the game but instead proceeded to give back the entire lead and struggle down the stretch. Of the three losses on the roadie, it’s the Suns’ game that likely sticks in the players’ minds as the one that stings most and the game that cost them a better showing on the trip.

Tonight, the Lakers must remember what they did well in that game to get the lead in the first place and replicate that. Early on, Kobe established the post against PJ Tucker and initiated the offense when help came. This created open shots for teammates and kept the Suns’ D off balance. The Lakers’ bench was also key as Gasol anchored that unit with his passing and Jamison had an efficient night scoring by hitting his outside shot. Tonight, of course, Gasol won’t be able to anchor the bench but getting Kobe involved early via post ups (especially from the right block) should loosen up the Suns D enough to generate good looks at the basket.

That said, the Lakers must also find sustainable offense from actions that don’t involve Kobe working from the post. Namely, they must start to find some chemistry in their pick and roll game. This action — especially between Nash and Howard — hasn’t yet clicked, so sorting that out should be a priority. Against the Suns, I’d like to see Howard set firmer screens and dive hard, but I’d also like to see secondary passes lead to quick entries into Dwight after he dives should the initial pass from Nash not be there. The Lakers wings are often very quick to look for their own shots when they act as release valves in the P&R and that does little to involve Howard in the game beyond him chasing offensive rebounds when his teammates shoot. I’d especially like Ron to show more discernment in his game and choose to hit Dwight fighting for position down low rather than settling for the outside jumper. In the last Suns game, Ron shot 6-17 from the floor (3-10 from behind the arc), tying for the team lead (with Kobe) for FGA’s. A little more restraint would be nice, especially if his shot isn’t falling.

Defensively, the Lakers must keep the Suns out of transition. Phoenix in is the top 10 in pace and will try to force tempo tonight by pushing the ball after misses and makes, trying to score before the Laker D can get set. Finding a man early in a defensive possession will be key for every Laker and the bigs must get back quickly to combat against wings streaking up the floor hoping to get lay ups ahead of the pack.

If the Lakers can turn this into a half court game, they have a much better chance of slowing the Suns’ O, but that doesn’t eliminate the threats. The Suns have some very good individual offensive performers who can get hot and put points up on the board. The Lakers saw that last game as Michael Beasley lit them up for 27 points on countless isolations that no defender could stop. Besides Beasley, the Lakers must also be aware of Dragic’s desire to create in the P&R and limit his ability to turn the corner and generate good looks for himself or teammates when the defense collapses. Rotations will be key tonight and hard hedges and recovers by the big men will be needed to stop Dragic’s momentum and then limit the dives by Gortat and the pops by Scola for open jumpers.

We say this all the time, but every game is important at this point and especially ones against bad teams visiting Staples. These are the types of games the Lakers must win if they’re to make any sort of run towards a playoff berth and they’ll need to come out tonight and play with purpose to get it done.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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