After Julius Randle’s injury on opening night, writing a game preview seems sort of trivial. But the games will go on and the Lakers, even down their prized rookie and as shorthanded as ever, travel to Phoenix to play their second game in as many nights in an opponent’s home opener. The lack of rest (both physical and mental, considering the Randle injury) and the fact that the Suns are opening their season are two variables that would have made this game challenging already, but when combined with the fact that the Suns are the superior team the Lakers are facing a steep climb.
While the Lakers played the Suns in the preseason, this game will likely not follow that template. For one, that game saw Phoenix rest their starting backcourt in the 2nd half while the Lakers played all their available players until the near end. If you recall, Kobe exited with a couple of minutes left in overtime which promptly saw the Lakers struggle to score and the Suns pull a way to win. It’s arguable the game never should have even gotten to that point, though, as Wes Johnson simply had to sink a couple of free throws in the closing seconds to clinch the win. That didn’t happen, however, and the Lakers fell because of it.
With the Suns having their full lineup at their disposal, the main key of the game will be the Lakers’ team defense and how the manage to fend off the superior athleticism and quickness that the Suns’ backcourt has to offer. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe will look to push the pace at every opportunity. When one of them leaves the floor, Isaiah Thomas will do the same. With this, the Lakers’ transition defense will be severely tested and the need to get back while defending the paint against straight-line drives while also marking shooters who will run to the three point line is a major key to the game. The Lakers must build a wall with their guards and their big men must hustle back to support or the fast break points will come in bunches.
When the game slows down, the defense will need to be just as sharp. While the departure of Channing Frye will affect the Suns’ spacing based offense, their point guard trio will still look to do damage in the P&R by either splitting hard hedges or stringing out their dribble to draw multiple defenders. Both tactics will lead to open three pointers and quick attacks to the rim by the ball handler, so the second line of defense must be in tune with those at the point of attack if this action is to be slowed down.
Offensively, the Lakers must find a way to be more opportunistic and not always settle for a walk-it-up, methodical approach. I can understand that coach Scott would want to limit possessions and play “smashmouth basketball”, but when you don’t have big men who easily create their own shots and the drag P&R is the action that your best scoring wings seem to be best out of, some tweaking is in order. Jeremy Lin and Kobe need to find the right balance between pushing the pace and settling into the half court offense, especially since getting into a track meet with the Suns isn’t a good idea. But that doesn’t mean walking the ball up every time, nor does it mean isolating Jordan Hill or Carlos Boozer more than you run P&R actions for Lin or look to get Kobe working on the weak side before the help defense can fully get set up.
Losing Randle’s ability to create offense on the second unit will be blow in this game (and every game moving forward), so I hope to see Scott start to tweak his rotations some so the starters (who aren’t a dynamic group anyway) don’t play so many minutes together. It would help all the units if Lin and Kobe could find some stretches in different lineups even if they start the game together. Lin and Davis have a nice chemistry in the P&R, so using them together with Xavier Henry on the back side lurking as a penetrator when the ball is kicked to him could be a nice way to generate some points when Kobe is not on the floor.
All in all, though, the Suns are a heavy favorite in this game and for good reason. If this game ended in a blowout, I would not be surprised. Still, the Lakers must be smart about how they play and disciplined in their execution regardless of what the scoreboard says.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.