The Lakers are back from their two game mini road trip with two losses in hand, each game building on the frustration felt all season. It’s like losing to the lowly Bucks wasn’t enough so the team went into Minnesota the next night and lost by 36, giving up 143 points (in regulation!) in the process. I’d say this little stretch would be considered rock bottom, but who am I kidding the Lakers have had too many moments that qualify for any single one to stand out.
There are only 10 games left in the season, however, so the suffering is almost over. Soon there won’t be any more bad losses to stew over (or, if you’re that guy, to root for). And while I fully anticipate there being a few more good moments to cheer for over the this final 20 days of the campaign, I must admit I am relishing this year coming to a close like no other I can really remember. As a Lakers’ fan, normally the end of the year is either an extreme celebration or major disappointment. The stakes the team typically plays at demands the emotional investment that creates this environment. This season, however, there is none of that.
I suppose it will all be over soon enough.
Tonight, though, the team is back in LA and facing off against a team who still does have something to play for. The Suns are in a battle for their playoff lives, fighting for that one of those final slots in the second season with the Mavs and the Grizzlies. They currently sit as the 7th seed, but are only a half game up from dropping to 9th in the conference. For them, then, this game against the Lakers is a must win and they will come into Staples looking to get one step closer to making the playoffs (and obliterating their preseason expectations in the process). This is what they have to play for.
The Lakers? They want to play spoiler to teams just like the Suns. As Nick Young said earlier this week, if all they have left to play for is ruining other team’s hopes, they’ll take it.
That will be extra difficult tonight, though, now that Eric Bledsoe is back in the lineup for Phoenix. The dynamic combo guard has returned from his torn meniscus and picked up right where he left off, stuffing the stat-sheet and giving the Suns that second perimeter threat to play next to and off of Goran Dragic. With Bledsoe back in the fold, the Suns are more dynamic on both sides of the ball and are even more of a nightmare in transition.
If you’re looking for strategy, it’s that last point that should worry the Lakers most. Phoenix is one of the best fast breaking teams in the league, able to put up points in bunches with Dragic and Bledsoe able to get all the way to the rim once they get a head of steam and multiple other finishers flanking them who are equally comfortable scoring in the paint or running to the three point line to take advantage of a sagging defense. Considering the Lakers are one of the worst transition teams in the league, if they hope to even keep this game close their play in this specific area will need to be at its best.
The other way to keep the game close is to hope the three ball is falling for them in bunches. If there is one place the Lakers can theoretically match the Suns it is in the area of outside shooting with several wing players able to match or outdo their Phoenix counterpart. Jodie Meeks and Nick Young are especially important in this area, but so are Kent Bazemore and Xavier Henry (should he suit up). If Steve Nash is also able to go, he too can generate a boost as a shooter and a playmaker who occupies defenders and gets teammates open looks.
This is the ideal scenario, however, and as we are well aware the Lakers have rarely dealt in the ideal this season. As mentioned, the Suns have something tangible to play for while the Lakers are at the point where they need to invent motivation. In a contest of equal talent, I will always take the former over the latter. In a game where the talent is already tilted, it becomes an even more lopsided equation. That doesn’t mean the Lakers don’t have a chance — this team has beaten some of the top teams in the league this year by sticking to their game plan and getting hot from distance. But as the year has shown, that style mixed with this talent base isn’t nearly consistent enough to be reliable.
In that way, I expect the Lakers to go down tonight, even if they are able to stick close and surprise. Only 10 games left, folks.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.