The Lakers coming in: The Lakers had an interesting last few games, going 3-3 in their last 6 contests, including a feel good win over the Wolves after learning that Kobe would be out 6 weeks and a thrashing at the hands of the Warriors just one night later. Both games showed the potential of this team. When the shots are falling and this team is having fun, they can compete with a lot of teams, even winning on the strength of an active defense. When the shots aren’t falling and the other team cracks the code of the Lakers’ pressure schemes, they can look horribly over matched. Of course, you can pin at least some of that on the team’s health (against the Warriors the team played without Kobe, Pau, Farmar, Blake, and Nash) and how that affected lineup construction and how Mike D’Antoni had to deploy his players in a workable rotation.
Tonight against the Suns, some of that will be normalized. Pau Gasol is feeling better after an upper respiratory infection kept him out of the Warriors’ game. However, with Pau back, another shift in the starting lineup has occurred with Jordan Hill once again going back to the bench in favor of Shawne Williams. Many will disagree with Williams inclusion with the first five — I for one would start Hill regardless of match ups — but if I had to guess why D’Antoni is starting Williams against the Suns it’s related to a combination of match ups (the Suns play stretch 4′s throughout the game and Williams’ defense on them will be useful) and what the team’s lineup data is telling him. When Williams is on the floor, the Lakers have a positive net rating (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 6.4. This mark is second on the team (behind Jordan Farmar — get well soon) and reflects that the team seems to perform well with him in the game even tthough is individual stats are nothing to write home about. Again, I’d start Hill and still give Willaims his regular burn, but I’ve no doubt D’Antoni is looking at some of these numbers and rationalizing putting Williams in the lineup.
The Suns coming in: As I wrote when teh Lakers played the Suns earlier this month, there may not be a more surprising team in the league than this team. Many had them “tanking” for a high draft pick this summer, but instead they are 6 games over .500, 2nd in the Pacific Division, and a firm playoff team. They’re 7-2 in their last 9 games with their only losses coming against the Grizzlies on the road and the Spurs in Phoenix. They continue to be paced by their dynamic backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, both of whom are threats to score 30 points or dish out 10 assists on any given night. Add to that their ability to defend well and it’s not a stretch to say they should be considered one of (if not the) best backcourts in the league.
There’s more to this team, of course. The Morris twins seem revitalized playing together again. Channing Frye’s return from his heart surgery last year remains one of the feel good stories of the year, not to mention he’s been productive when on the floor. P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green are also showing flashes, providing shooting and defense in solid minutes. All in all, then, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this team has the record it does. Rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek is pushing the right buttons and has these guys playing hard and mostly smart basketball.
Keys to the game: I could try to fill this portion of the preview out with a bunch of stats and strategy, X’s and O’s and coach speak but in reality this game comes down to only a couple of factors.
Defensively, can the Lakers slow down Bledsoe and Dragic? In the last game these teams played the Suns’ duo combined for 49 points and 14 assists, essentially carrying their team all with until Marcus Morris also doing his share of the heavy lifting down the stretch. If Dragic and Bledsoe come anywhere close to approaching those numbers tonight, the Lakers will almost certainly lose. How they accomplish slowing down such a terrific tandem is another story, but it will be up to Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks, Wes Johnson, and Nick Young to play strong defense up high while Pau, Williams, Hill, Kaman, and Sacre show the necessary help on the back line to contest shots at the rim. The various layers of the Lakers’ D must work in unison when either guard has the ball to try and make their lives difficult.
Offensively, the Lakers must establish the paint while making a strong percentage of their outside shots. The team will need Pau, Kaman, and Hill to finish in the paint and will need at least two (and like three) of the Henry, Meeks, Young, and Johnson foursome on the wing to have strong shooting nights. If this sounds like a lot, it is. But it will be what’s needed for the Lakers tonight if they hope to keep the game close and be able to win by the final buzzer, especially on the road. Anything is possible, of course, but this will be a tall task considering how well the Suns have been playing in December. But the Lakers would love nothing more than to exact a little bit of revenge for the last game in Staples while also building some momentum heading into the Christmas day game against the Heat.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 AM.