No game so far has been a better microcosm of the entire Lakers season than the last time the Lakers played the Suns (Nov. 19).
To refresh: The Lakers raced out to an early lead double-digit lead with Lamar Odom (9 points, 8 rebounds in the first quarter) getting the ball down low, and that lead grew to 17 points early in the second quarter. Then the wheels came off, the Lakers went away from Odom, while Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire started passing the ball back and forth like the Laker defenders were standing still (insert your own joke here). By the half, the Lakers needed a three pointer from Chucky Atkins just to keep a 47-46 lead.
In the end, just looking at the statistics, things looked bad for the Lakers: Phoenix and Lakers both shot 45.7% from field, but Suns had 11 more shots; the Lakers had 13 turnovers, Phoenix 6; The Suns had 21 fast break points, the Lakers 10; the Suns had 54 points in the paint, the Lakers 22. What kept the Lakers in it was that while they took 25 three-pointers (normally too many) they hit 14 (56%).
Despite all the bad numbers, the Suns needed a 7-0 run in the last minute of play to get the win, 107-102. Remember also, this was the game where Rudy T. blamed the officiating afterwards for the loss.
Tonight, the outcome could be different thanks to some Laker advantages — they are at home (the Lakers are 7-2 at Staples) and get the Suns on the second night of a back-to-back (the Suns are 3-1 so far this season in the second game). The Lakers also come in well rested after four days off (although long layoffs can mean cold shooting early).
Leading the way last time for the Lakers were Kobe (29) and Butler (21), but where the Lakers need to feed the ball is Odom. The four is the one place the Suns don’t defend well (19.1 PER for opponents, the only position the Suns are allowing above the league average PER of 15). It worked last game, then when the Suns made an adjustment the Lakers abandoned getting the ball Odom, rather than take advantage of the new hole created.
It also would help if the Lakers play some defense tonight, especially inside — last game Stoudemire had 33 and Marion added 27. They got those numbers because Nash had 16 assists. Believe it or not, the Lakers defense has improved some — in the last five games teams are shooting just 39.6% against Los Angeles.
Since that last loss to the Suns, the Lakers have gone 5-2, but against generally inferior teams. Tonight should be a good test to see if this Laker team really is improving.