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Records: Lakers 8-1, Suns 4-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.1 (1st), Suns 111.5 (2nd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (10th), Suns 110.9 (28th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu and Robin Lopez.
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are looking to rebound big after their first loss of the season to the Nuggets on Thursday. With a few days off between games, the Lakers should be well-rested against Phoenix, which is probably a good thing since Phoenix will look to use their smaller lineup to spread the court and turn tonight’s matchup into a running game. It’s no secret that L.A. didn’t play well down the stretch against Denver, but the loss hopefully served as a reminder that talent alone isn’t going to help the Lakers execute down the stretch of close games.

The Lakers hit the road for three games after tonight, beginning with Milwaukee on Tuesday. Looking ahead to the month of December when they’ll play a majority of road games, I expect L.A. to come out with a focused business-like effort tonight.

The Suns Coming in: At 4-4, Phoenix is just about where most insiders expected them to be this season — a borderline playoff team, capable of beating a strong team on a good night, but equally susceptible to losing to the league’s lesser half as well. In their defense, they’ve had an extremely difficult schedule so far, already playing against L.A., San Antonio, Portland, Utah and Atlanta.

The seemingly ageless wonder Steve Nash is doing more than ever for the Suns, absent another marquee superstar a la Amar’e Stoudemire. On the season, the Canadian is averaging 20 points and 10 assists in just 34 minutes per game, with a PER of 24. In fact, in the Suns most recent win against the Grizzlies on Friday night, Nash came within three rebounds of notching his fourth career triple double, scoring a season-high 28 points to go along with 14 assists and seven rebounds. Jason Richardson has also emerged as a more consistent scorer for the Suns this season, averaging 21 points and scoring at least 15 in Phoenix’s first seven games of the season. While Hakim Warrick’s 13 points have helped ease the burden some inside, the Suns are still a team woefully lacking in that department. That and the fact that they give up just about the same amount of points as they score (107) has resulted in a mediocre start to the season.

Suns Blogs: Be sure to check our Valley of the Suns for the latest updates from the desert.

Keys to the game:

The Lakers will want to avoid the track meet they got into the last time these two teams met on Oct. 29 — a 114-106 win for the forum blue and gold. In that game, Grant Hill went off for 21 points on 10-17 shooting and Robin Lopez had one of his better games of the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds — numbers well above his season averages.

The Lakers need to control the battle of the boards against a much smaller Suns squad. I’d especially look for Pau Gasol to take it upon himself to dominate inside tonight after his largely lifeless second half against the Nuggets on Thursday. Lamar Odom always seems to play well against Phoenix and I’m sure the coaching staff wouldn’t mind a repeat of his 18 point, 17 rebound performance when L.A. beat the Suns earlier this season.

I’d also look for Kobe to have a strong rebound effort after shooting just 11-32 from the field against Denver and seemingly choosing to revert to 2006 Kobe in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Lakers have an enormous size advantage against the Suns and Bryant would be wise take advantage of that and play more of a facilitator role, at least early on in the game.

The Suns are a deep, but ultimately imbalanced team who rely too much on outside shooting and not enough on defense and rebounding. In seasons past, their bench has caused problems for the Lakers, but thanks to the Killer B’s, L.A. has hardly missed a beat when resting its starters through nine games. Phoenix’s energy has also been an issue for L.A. in past seasons, but Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown have injected new juice of their own into the Lakers lineup. Perhaps most surprising on that front for Phoenix this season has been the aforementioned Nash’s resurgence. As he goes, so go the Suns, so the impetus must be placed early on stopping Steve from going on one of his signature hot streaks. As is always the case anytime L.A. plays Phoenix, they’ll need to control the flow of the game from the outset. For that reason, I’d look for the Lakers to come out of the gates with a strong first quarter, quickly establishing control of the game and ensuring that it is played on their terms.

Even without Stoudemire, the Suns play L.A. with confidence and have enough pieces leftover from their Western Conference Finals run to give the Lakers a strong challenge before they head out on the road for their first mini-trip of the season.

Where you can watch: Fox Sports West at 6:30 p.m. or listen live on 710 ESPN Radio.

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Some things never change; there’s still that annoying cowbell at Arco Arena, Kobe’s all-around brilliance, Derek Fisher’s clutch shooting and the Lakers reigning supreme over the Kings. The House that Mitch built continued its early season steamrolling of the league tonight, this time knocking off Sacramento 112-100 to improve to 5-0. Let’s take a look at some of the keys to the game…

* His knee is 100%. Or so he says. If you’re the rest of the NBA, you better hope Kobe is telling the truth, because if this is #24 at only 80 or 90%, it’s going to be darn near impossible to knock off L.A. this season. Bryant decided before the game that it was time to turn the Kings’ franchise into his personal playground, pretty much shooting, passing and rebounding at will while Sacramento’s defenders remained mostly helpless for the 36 minutes he was on the floor. The results: 30 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists for Bryant’s 17th career triple double and first since Jan. 21, 2009. Other than a down stretch in the first half of the fourth quarter, Kobe absolutely dominated this game in every which way.

* Admit it; you breathed a sizable sigh of relief when Odom quickly returned after wincing in pain for several minutes during a key stretch the third quarter — apparently the result of re-injuring his thumb. That is how much a consistent Lamar means to this still short-handed Lakers squad right now. Odom is in full beast mode through five games, playing at a level he has historically reserved more for big game atmospheres. Once again, he had the full arsenal on display, tallying 18 points to go along with eight boards.

* The young Kings remind me a little bit of the Thunder in that they’re a talented, hard-working bunch who have shown a lot of potential in a short period of time. With Tyreke Evans at the helm and some promising players like DeMarcus Cousins, they are starting to build a foundation for what could be a very solid team in maybe two years. Even after going down big in the second half, they refused to concede to a clearly superior Lakers team, fighting all the way back to within seven in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. They actually out-hustled the Lakers on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 49-43, including a 12-7 edge in offensive boards. L.A. quickly reminded the Kings, though, that one of the most important attributes to a winning team is poise. It doesn’t hurt to have Derek Fisher on your side either, who did his best impersonation of his fourth quarter performance during Game 3 of last year’s Finals against Boston.

* L.A. closed out quarters and halves just as championship teams are expected to — decisively. Just when you thought Sacramento was about to embark on a game-changing run, there Odom, Fisher and Co. were, quickly erecting brick walls to counteract the Kings’ offense. It was a balanced attack, too, as perhaps for the first time this season, the bench (only 5-19 shooting tonight) wasn’t a key story in deciding the outcome of the game, while all five starters scoring in double figures.

* Guard penetration remains a problem spot for the Lakers. Evans, who was plagued by foul trouble for much of the night, still managed to charge his way down the lane for 21 points, with Francisco Garcia following closely behind with 17 off the bench. You have to think Bynum’s return will rectify this some, but L.A. will eventually find themselves on the other side of victory if they continue to let the Evans’ of the league bobsled their way uncontested through the heart of their defense.

* All things considered, the Lakers mostly aced their first back-to-back test of the season. The requisite energy was there, even if it led at times to a bit of a track meet with the Kings. Letting the Kings and the Arco crowd back into the game is a no no, but the talent disparity between the two teams made up for the L.A.’s defensive lapses in the fourth quarter. It worked tonight and will probably work against a struggling team like the Raptors this Friday, too. Portland on Sunday is another story, though.

* Lastly, congrats to Kobe for breaking the Lakers franchise record for regular-season minutes played tonight, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s previous record of 37,492. Another game, another amazing career feat for Bryant.

Lakers at Suns Game Preview

Jeff Skibiski —  October 29, 2010

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The 1-0 Lakers head to the Valley of the Sun tonight to face a drastically different Phoenix squad than the one that took them to six games in last year’s Western Conference Finals (shout out to Ron Artest…that Game 5 winner is still fresh in my mind). That old stalwart with the long hair and perfectly arched three point shot is still around, but the pieces–new and old–surrounding him after Amar’e Stoudemire’s offseason departure remain somewhat of a mystery at this point. That said, here are a few things to look for in tonight’s road opener:

* The Lakers new-and-improved point guard tandem of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake gets its first test of the young season against an elite point guard (apologies to Aaron Brooks) in the aforementioned Steve Nash. Unlike past seasons, though, when Nash had the luxury of dumping the ball down to Stoudemire, his role has been more of a scoring point guard through the Suns’ first two games. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the pesty guard’s 26 points in Phoenix’s season opening loss to Portland and 18 points in the Suns’ win against Utah last night—both of which either led or tied for the team lead in scoring—is a rather rare feat for Nash, who only accomplished that once in consecutive games during the 2009-2010 season. As Steve goes, so too go the Suns, which makes stopping him priority number one for the Lakers.

* Though Stoudemire has never been known as a prominent rebounder or defender, he still filled the lane in a way that no current Suns player is capable of emulating on a consistent basis. Robin Lopez proved in last year’s playoffs that he has the potential to become a force down low and the offseason band-aid pick-up of Hakim Warrick will undoubtedly help some, but at the end of the day, the Lakers—Bynum or no Bynum—should be able to fully take advantage of the size disparity between the two teams. Pau pulled down a gritty 11 boards in the home opener against Houston and I’d look for him to meet or exceed that number tonight. Despite his efforts, the Lakers found themselves in an unfamiliar position against the Rockets, who badly outrebounded them 53-44. Against a larger Yao Ming-led Houston team, it makes a little more sense; a similar effort against Phoenix would be inexcusable, though.

* The Lakers have won each of their last five road openers, but these types of early season games against a hungry team like the Suns, whose crowd will no doubt be ready to take some vengeance out on the forum blue and gold, are always dangerous. As we all witnessed in the Conference Finals last season, Phoenix’s stellar outside shooting and athleticism were able to mitigate some of the Lakers’ largest strengths. Moreover, the zone defense employed by Alvin Gentry really caught the Lakers off guard and if it weren’t for Artest’s put-back in Game 5, who knows what direction the series could have turned.

* Overall, the Suns roster reminds me a bit of a Thanksgiving dinner without the stuffing and cranberry sauce. Sure, they have some talented pieces—especially with their surplus of small forward types (Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Jared Dudley and even Josh Childress, though he’s listed as as a two)—but their roster appears unbalanced and incomplete by today’s NBA standards. Against a team like the Lakers, who can throw any combo of Artest, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Kobe on you, one of Phoenix’s most important advantages is taken away. If you’re Phoenix, where is the stuffing needed to fill the lane against the physical rosters of the league’s elite teams?

* The Lakers will have had three days off by tipoff time, which for most teams might be considered a little counterproductive at this time of the year. The Lakers aren’t in that category, though, with several players—most notably, one Kobe Bryant—still recovering from injuries. With Tuesday night’s emotional ring ceremony and last minute victory behind them, tonight’s game should be a good gauge for where this team’s mental state resides early on in this 2010-11 season. Ideally, it would be great to see the Lakers take a focused, business-like approach to tonight’s game, keeping their feet on the pedal and extending their early season momentum.

WHERE YOU CAN WATCH: ESPN and KCAL at 7:30 p.m. PST or 710 AM ESPN Radio.

Around the World (Wide Web)

Jeff Skibiski —  October 28, 2010

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From Mike Bresnahan, L.A. Times: It’s only one game into the season, and the Lakers have an easy schedule until late December, but Bryant’s progress will continue to be monitored until he shows signs of regaining the burst and lift he possessed before his right knee started hurting toward the end of last season. He said he was fine after playing 37 minutes against Houston. “I felt good,” said Bryant, who had seven assists.

From J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Give me The Blake Show over The Lake Show. With Blake Griffin finally on the court the Clippers are the most interesting team in Los Angeles right now. Not the best, not the one with the most potential, just the most intriguing during the interminable regular season. The Lakers’ story will be told in the spring. Kobe Bryant already sounds bored by the tedious process. If you saw a graphic equalizer for his media interviews over the past week it would look like this: —————-. The Clippers, thanks to Griffin, figure to be a nightly discovery throughout the winter. And if the coming months are anything like his coming out party Wednesday night, you’d better get ready to pop every last kernel of Terrell Owens’ popcorn.

From Mark Medina, L.A. Times: Ron Artest’s website apparently drew so many visitors looking to buy raffle tickets for his 2010 championship ring that it crashed. “We understand we’ve nearly crashed RonArtest.com,” CNN host Larry King said to Artest, who appeared Wednesday on King’s show. “So we’re going to give you an alternate site. You can go to NetRaffle.org. That’s NetRaffle.org. So we’ve crashed your site. … We have destroyed your site. The site is exploding.”

From Andy Kamenetzky, ESPN Los Angeles: Blake told Brian and me during our Media Day show he wasn’t pulling a Ron Artest and placing the blame over a failure to Three-peat on his shoulders. As he noted, championships are won and lost by teams, not individuals. That doesn’t mean, however, there was not relief in immediately demonstrating his worth to a demanding fan base right off the bat. “It’s just nice to start off and show people you belong. I’m happy to be here and I want to contribute,” acknowledged the Maryland University product.

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: As history tells us, revolutions hardly every occur peacefully, and this one is no different. There may not be any bloodshed, but there are plenty of battles being waged over the usefulness of advanced stats. One such battle has come to the fore, perhaps almost by accident: the question of whether the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat will win the NBA championship. Miami is the paper tiger (it is as yet unknown whether they are also a real tiger), a team made up of such overwhelming statistical parts that their power cannot be ignored by the statistically inclined. Statistical models aren’t as fond of the Lakers.They view the Lakers as a good team, to be sure, but they focus on certain things about the Lakers (their age, their somewhat underwhelming point differential last year) as evidence that they might not be championship-quality this season. But, the Lakers have two straight championships backing up their case, and a team chock full of all the qualities that stats non-believers will point to as not showing up in a box score.

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Through three exhibition games, it’s mostly been all quiet on the western front for the Lakers. Sure, there’s the whole issue of offensive/defensive continuity, Bynum’s wavering injury status, Kobe’s continuing rehab, the integration of five new players and the expected post-championship malaise. Wednesday night’s promising 98-95 win against the Kings showed that the forum blue and gold are back to business, though. They’ll get another nice tune-up tonight against a team in the Denver Nuggets, whom, when healthy and focused, are still considered a threat for the number two seed in the Western Conference. Here are five things to look for tonight in the Lakers return to the site where they won their sixteenth title nearly four months ago to the day.

1) The Melodrama continues in Denver, but Anthony remains the most valuable part of a competitive Nuggets team for the time being. The small forward has stuck to his guns through three preseason games so far, refusing to publicly state that he’d like a trade—instead channeling his energy onto the basketball court. He’s averaging over 24 points so far in the pre-season, including a near triple-double against the Clippers on Thursday with 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. For the slimmed down Ron Artest and newcomer Matt Barnes, tonight’s matchup against Melo represents their first real test against an elite small forward and our first look at what just how potent the defensive duo could be at limiting the Anthony’s, Durant’s and James’ of the league.

2) Will this be the game where Kobe’s production finally matches what appears to be his increasingly improved mobility? Even after his poor 2-10 shooting night against Sacramento, Bryant looked like he actually had his legs under him for the first time this preseason. Coach Jackson says he’ll likely play #24 for about half of the game tonight, which should give us an extended look at exactly where the 2010 Finals MVP stands with 10 games left ’til the season opener. Again, at this early juncture of the season, it’s still more about quality over quantity for Kobe…not that anyone would mind a 20+ point performance on good shooting numbers just to give us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to once the Mamba is back to 100%.

3) According to Jackson, he plans to play the starters heavy minutes tonight against Denver, before giving the bench more burn in tomorrow’s Shootout finale. The starting unit played well in the first eight minutes against the Kings on Wednesday, quickly building a 23-17 before Matt Barnes checked in at about the four minute marker of the first quarter. More than building an early lead, though, they actually began to look like the fivesome who who was largely responsible for winning back-to-back titles. Can they maintain that same rhythm in consecutive games and against a superior Nuggets team?

4) Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and Al Harrington are all out tonight, leaving a gaping hole in the Nuggets front court that Odom and Gasol should be able to exploit. Jackson singled out his favorite whipping boy, Pau, even after what looked like a successful 18 point, 12 rebound effort against the Kings. Regardless of whether he turned a deaf ear to Phil’s insinuations that he was “still on vacation,” look for Gasol to assert himself early and often tonight.

5) Ty Lawson and Aaron Afflalo started in the backcourt for the Nuggets on Thursday against the Clips, with the latter notching an impressive 27 points and nine rebounds. Small, athletic guards like Lawson and Afflalo have been met with little duress from Lakers defenders in recent years, but that’s precisely why they brought in a proven defender like Steve Blake to hopefully fill some of that void. L.A. will be without Vujacic tonight, so the onus on stopping the Nuggets guards may also fall onto Barnes’ and even Devin Ebanks’ shoulders.

WHERE YOU CAN WATCH: 7:30 p.m. local time on FS West, NBATV and ESPN Radio 710 am.