Preview and Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Ryan Cole —  March 18, 2013

Records: Lakers 36-32 (8th in the West), Suns 22-45 (14th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.8 (8th in the NBA), Suns 97.9 (28th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (18th in the NBA), Suns 105.2 (23rd in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Suns: Goran Dragic, Wes Johnson, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Jermaine O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (day-to-day), Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Suns: Channing Frye (out for season), Marcin Gortat (out indefinitely)

The Lakers Coming in: For starters, Kobe Bryant is not going to play tonight as he continues to recover from his severely sprained ankle and the flu. While this is not encouraging news, it’s not necessarily a bad thing either. The Lakers dont play again until Friday, and three days of rest will surely be helpful in the Mamba’s recovery process, as well as getting needed rest from the wear and tear of an 82-game season.

The Lakers come into tonights matchup off of two quality team victories. This past Friday they went to Indiana and worked together as a unit to beat one of the quality teams in the NBA on the road. Last night at Staples Center the Lakers hosted the Sacramento  Kings, and they continued their collective cohesive play at home in a 113-102 victory (now have won seven straight home games) . More than the anything, the one thing that stands out about the Lakers in these last two wins is that they are playing like a fully functioning basketball team. In Antawn Jamison’s post-game interview last night he stressed that the established sense of urgency in the locker-room has been they key factor in the team’s succes since the All-Star break (11-3 record).

Aside from the injuries, it is obvious that the individual parts are starting to come together for this team. Steve Blake has found his place in the second-unit as the backup point guard, and is playing exceptional on both ends of the floor right now. Antawn Jamison is starting to show the promise of being the veteran signing that Lakers hoped he would be. Metta World Peace has found his stride again in these last few games without Kobe, and continues to play with inspired effort. And the Steve Nash/Dwight Howard combination in the pick-and-roll has been effective as of late. Despite the obvious defensive issues that are still present with this team, they are making the right strides this late in the season in becoming a factor in the playoffs as they continue to rely on working together to get victories.

The Suns Coming in: The Suns head into tonights matchup having lost four straight games and six of their last seven. Been a tough season for the Suns to say the least as they are tied with the New Orleans Hornets for the worst record in the Western Conference. They are coming off a tough game on the road against Washington Wizards in which they gave up 14 three-pointers en route to a 127-105 loss.

Despite the encouraging camaraderie in the locker-room under interim head coach Lindsey Hunter, there hasn’t been positive results yielded on the hardwood (9-17 record). And that’s not a discredit to Hunter’s coaching, it’s just there wasn’t much to expect with the hand he was dealt. Players have been in and out of lineups due to injury or performance, and some just haven’t fully bought into his principles because of the team’s losing.

Similar to the Lakers, the Suns are a flawed defensive team. Their issues on defense are more half-court based though. The Suns haven’t had the rim protection needed to stop penetration, and as a result offer lots of open shots to their opponents in drive-and-kick scenarios.They have given up 100 points or more in six straight contests, the most consecutive times that has happened to this team since the 2011-2012 season.

On the positive side, Goran Dragic has been a consistent producer for this team. The young Slovenian point guard has flourished under Lindsey Hunter by having the luxury of operating freely with their offense. His growth will be important for the Suns moving forward as they continue to try to find the right pieces to place around him.

Suns Blogs:  Valley of the Suns and Bright Side Of The Sun both do a fantastic job of covering the Suns.

Keys to game: The Lakers need to continue playing with a collective approach and with a sense of urgency. We’ve seen on multiple occasions when the Lakers have suffered really bad losses as a result of taking an opponent lightly. The last two games have been the perfect blueprint of not doing that.

It will be important that Dwight Howard gets established early. Similar to the match ups against the Pacers and Kings, it’s not so much that Dwight gets shot attempts but that he gets touches. Dwight forces every defense in the NBA to make an adjustment because of his presence. So because Phoenix will be absent of a legitimate interior defender tonight, it’s going to be key for the Lakers to punish them with Dwight.

A lot of the cohesive play of the Lakers on offense should be attributed to Dwight. More than often he forces a double team, and has shown that he is capable of making the right pass leading to quality shot attempts. Also with his new found desire to set solid screens on guards, he has helped Nash become a more potent facilitator. Dwight’s improved health has resulted in some dominant play as of late and the Lakers need to continue taking advantage of that.

Defensively it’s going to be key to contain Goran Dragic. How effective he is factors a lot into their offense (which is one of the worst in the league). It is likely that Phoenix will try to place Dragic in the pick-and-roll to take advantage of Nash’s defensive woes, so helping and recovering is going to be important. Also the Lakers should make a conscious effort to not let Michael Beasley get going. Some of Beasley’s best games this season have come at the hand of the Lakers, so it’s essential that the Lakers force him to take tough shots and be a decision-maker rather than a scorer. Finally the Lakers are going to have to make an effort to get back in transition. Phoenix is not very successful in the half-court, so they make it a priority to push the ball in transition when possible.

The continued contributions of Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison are going to be needed again on a night like this. Mike D’Antoni only played seven players last night, and we should expect him to do that tonight, so again, production from multiple guys is going to be a necessity.

All in all tonight is a game that the Lakers should win even on the second night of a back-to-back without Kobe and Pau. Playoff teams dont lose games like this.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Ryan Cole