For the second time in the team’s first five games the Lakers face the Suns tonight in a battle of Pacific Division foes. The Lakers will look to avenge their 20 point loss on the season’s second night while the Suns will look to join the division’s other teams by inking their third win on the year. As an aside, the Lakers are currently the Western Conference’s only winless team and join the the Pistons, Magic, and 76ers as the only teams in the league who have yet to earn their first W. They are also the only Pacific Division team who is currently under .500. I could do this for a while, so I will move on to other things.
That first game with the Suns — just as the preseason game these teams played — offers us a roadmap for what this contest will come down to. The Suns are the more talented team, but they are not infallible. The Lakers have some tools at hand that, if maximized, can keep this game close.
The main challenges remain the same. The Suns offer explosive scorers on the perimeter and the type of shooting from key positions (the forward spots, namely) to spread the Lakers’ defense out. Once spread, the guards will attack the paint with the dribble and force the Lakers’ defense to react. Once the back line defenders attempt to get in position, the Suns’ guards will decide if they will shoot or pass. Basketball really is an easy game.
The Lakers, then, must do better at slowing the ball at the point of attack rather than attempting to do so when the ball gets below the foul line. This means the on-ball defenders must be better at getting over and around screens while the big men must show out well enough on said screens to help on the ball while still being in position to recover to their own man. The onus for tonight’s defensive gameplan, then, falls on these six players: Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price, Wesley Johnson, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, and Ed Davis. If these six guys, regardless of the combinations they are deployed, can bottle up the ball and allow wing defenders to stay closer to home, the Lakers’ defense will have a chance.
This is easier said than done, of course, and based off the early season results there is no reason to believe it will happen. But the plan is there to be executed; the Lakers have no choice but to try.
Offensively the Lakers must start to take advantage of what the Suns have shown to be their strategy. The Suns have actually been cross-matching defensively, starting Goran Dragic on Kobe and deploying Eric Bledsoe on Jeremy Lin. That latter match up has given Lin issues as Bledsoe’s physicality and quickness at the point of attack has mostly stifled Lin’s ability to get into the paint. In the first match up Lin only got up five shot attempts due to this pressure (and because he was not assertive enough in looking for his own offense). Tonight that will not do and he needs to make Bledsoe defend, not allow him to be a roamer who can disrupt the entire offense by helping in the paint and cheating passing lanes.
As for Kobe, he has mostly tried to use his size advantage against Dragic by going to the mid-post and calling for the ball. This has typically led to two outcomes: 1. Kobe somewhat gumming up the offense because he’s standing, calling for the ball, in an area of the court that is key real estate for penetration and 2. Kobe fighting for post position against a quicker player who is employing half-front and ball denial tactics. Both have ended up draining the Lakers’ shot clock and making it so the team is scrambling for a good shot with less than 10 seconds left.
What I hope to see to counter this is getting Kobe moving more within the framework of the offense. If this means giving Kobe more P&R chances, fine. If it means running more pin downs, cross screen, or HORNS actions, that is good too. But Kobe battling with a crafty, quicker player will only be effective if he’s quick to make a catch or so physical in his positioning that he’s drawing fouls in the process. We’ll see if the latter ends up happening, but I’d like to see more of the former anyway.
The other area that the Lakers need to manage better is in the match up of the team’s PF’s and C’s. The Suns will try to play small as much as they can and the Lakers will need to counter this by either beating these smaller players up on the glass and in the offensive paint, or by going away from their normal rotations. The Morris twins, Shavlik Randolph, and Anthony Tolliver are all key to the Suns’ success in this area, so the combination of Hill, Davis, and Boozer will need to really work the interior on both sides of the ball or Byron Scott will need to go smaller to adjust. With Ryan Kelly hoping to get his first game action tonight, it might be a good time to give him some of Boozer’s minutes (or slide Wes up to PF or even Henry against one of the Morris boys) to counter.
The Lakers simply are not talented enough to sit on their hands every night and try to dictate to other teams. Yes, the season is only a few games old and Scott should see if what he’s trying to implement has any staying power. But in-game adjustments are just as vital to getting a victory as any long term foundation building. At some point Scott will need to shift the balance. I am not saying that needs to be tonight, but if games continue to get away from this team it will need to happen sooner rather than later. Especially if they continue to go winless.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.