Records: Lakers 50-20 (2nd in West), Suns 35-33 (10th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.5 (2nd in NBA), Suns 109.5 (9th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.4 (7th in NBA), Suns 109.8 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, Robin Lopez
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Suns: Gani Lawal (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are coming off of a tough win that they had to gut out late in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trailblazers, one of their most impressive wins since the All-Star Break. It’s been widely reported that one of the Lakers biggest reasons for their post-break improvement was their new found commitment to defense — a commitment that began with Andrew Bynum. With ‘Drew out of the Portland game, many wondered if the Lakers ability to funnel opposing offenses to the middle of the court, forcing mid-range jumpers and contested looks around the rim would be as affective with out Bynum’s big body in the middle. Even without ‘Drew, the Lakers were able to hold the Blazers to 80 points, the ninth time since the break that they’ve been able to hold their opponent under 90 points.
Tonight, the Lakers will go into the game winners of four straight and 12 of their last 13 games. More importantly, they come into tonight’s game one game ahead of Dallas for the #2 seed out West and only a half game behind both Chicago and Boston for the #2 overall record in the NBA. While their recent success indicates that they’re playing the best, or at least close to it, basketball in the league right now, things aren’t exactly perfect. Kobe is still a bit hampered by his ankle, and if this Dave McMenamin report is accurate, we still may not know to what extent his ankle is bothering him. In the story, a team source told McMenamin that not only was Kobe’s knee drained that during the Oklahoma City first round playoff series, “but twice more — between the second round against Utah and the conference finals against Phoenix and again between Games 4 and 5 of the Finals.” This is just another thing we might want to keep an eye on as the end of the regular season rapidly approaches.
The Suns Coming in: The Suns haven’t been bad recently, but they definitely haven’t been good either, going .500 in their last 12 games. They’ve had some guys miss a couple games due to injury (notably Steve Nash and Channing Frye) and had Aaron Brooks sit out their game against the Clippers because of a suspension. Things have been rocky, to say the least, in Phoenix, a team fighting desperately for that eighth spot in the Western Conference. They come into tonight’s game, winners to two straight, but lost four straight before the two wins, a definite hit to their shot at the playoffs. Currently, the Suns are sitting in the 10th seed, just two and a half games behind Memphis, but have a tough five-game road stretch toward the end of the season, so every game for this team matters from here on out.
Keys to game: I recently went back and watched Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, a game that featured Allen Iverson leading the 76ers to a win over the Lakers, scoring 48 points in the Lakers only loss of the post season. The Lakers didn’t lose that game because the 76ers were a better team, we know this because the Lakers went on to win the next four games. We know this because they faced a team that already knew that they were on their backs before the series even started. The amount of fight in the 76ers, for one game, was enough to put the Lakers on their heels and steal away the Lakers perfect post season. The Lakers were up big early in the first quarter, but didn’t deliver the seemingly imminent knockout punch. Instead, they allowed a team with more fight to stick around and ended up losing the game.
Tonight, the Lakers will be going up against a team in a much tougher fight than the Lakers are. The Lakers, with the Pacific Division already wrapped up, already know that they’ve made it to the postseason, they’re just playing for seeding. The Suns know, if that with every loss, the reality of them not even making the playoffs is a little bit closer to being realized. No, this isn’t exactly the same situation as that Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, if not only because the stakes aren’t even as close to being as high. But you do get the sense that, if the Lakers let this team hang around, they could lose this game, and more importantly, lose some ground on the Mavericks, Celtics and Bulls. With that being said, if the Lakers get the opportunity to put this Suns team out of its misery early, they absolutely need to. And of course, it all boils down to how they play on the defensive end.
The Lakers got a recent taste of a little of what the Suns may be doing tonight when they played the Orlando Magic. In that game, Stan Van Gundy opted to start Ryan Anderson to move Pau out of the paint. When Pau didn’t come out far enough, Anderson knocked down threes, when Pau did close out, the ball went in to Dwight Howard for an ISO on the block against Bynum. The Suns won’t have the same kind of post presence with Robin Lopez on the low blocks, but Channing Frye is the kind of forward that can extend the defense and make teams pay if left open. One of the positives of not having Bynum for tonight’s match up is that the versatile Lamar Odom will likely be assigned the role of covering Frye out on the wing, leaving Pau comfortably on the defensive block.
Other than Frye, the Suns have four more guys shooting at least 37 percent from behind the arch, and one more (Vince Carter) shooting 34 percent. Running guys off of the three point line will be key, as it always is, against the Suns. In their last meeting, a 99-95 Lakers win, they didn’t do a great job of running guys off of the three-point line as six different Suns hit at least one three, and three of them hit multiple threes. The Suns shot 47 percent from behind the arch while shooting only 42 percent from all two-point shots from three feet and beyond. Simple math suggests that the Lakers need to force the Suns to take more shots from two point range, not only because the Suns shot better from three, but in the occasion that they did score from inside the arch, they received one fewer point. Funneling the likes of Steve Nash and Aaron Brooks toward the middle is never easy, as they frequently tend to get where they want when they want, but the defense cannot get sucked into watching these guys put on a show and get caught sleeping while guarding shooters. If the Lakers bear down defensively, the offense will come naturally. This is a team that tends to make shots when they’re in a good defensive flow.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am. Update: You can also view this game nationally on TNT.