If there were ever a team to make the Lakers’ current situation seem enviable, it would be tonight’s opponent in the Phoenix Suns. In the past two weeks alone head coach Jeff Hornacek has been rumored to be in danger of losing his job, he then saw two of his top assistants fired, his starting point guard and best player, Eric Bledsoe, suffer a season-ending knee injury, and trade rumors begin to resurface around a disgruntled Markieff Morris.
And now, a team who spent much of last season fighting for the Western Conference’s eighth seed, sits at a paltry 12-24, a spot where fighting for draft position would seem a much more reasonable goal.
When taking all of this into account, the Lakers could be in a good position to add on to their season-high two-game win streak. Yet, as we’ve all come to accept this season, a win won’t come easy. If LA wants to pull one out, though, one key will be to hold Phoenix under the century mark as the Suns have averaged just under 110 points in their 12 wins this season, versus 100 in their losses.
In saying that, it is also important that the Lakers manage to get above that mark themselves as the Suns have allowed right around 111 points to opponents in losses this season. Phoenix has also posted the league’s worst point differential over their last 10 games, meaning the Lakers chances of doing this are trending in the right direction.
Still, this game will likely come down to the Lakers getting stops defensively. And for the Lakers — a team that ranks last in defensive efficiency on the season — this has been a struggle all year. Nevertheless, if they wish to do so against Phoenix, it will have to mean limiting their perimeter scoring. The Suns shoot the league’s second-highest percentage from three-point range on the season, and while their proficiency from long distance hasn’t been great over their current eight-game skid, they have the personnel to change that in a hurry.
To avoid this, the Lakers must emphasize driving marksman such as Mizra Teletovic, Devin Booker and the streaky Brandon Knight off the there-point line and rather forcing them to create off the dribble. If limiting such initial opportunities is done effectively, covering any potential kick-outs becomes even more crucial as the Suns have shot a 40.6 percent clip on catch-and-shoot attempts from the outside this season — a mark good for second in the league.
There is no confirmation yet of Kobe’s status for this one, but whether he plays or not, the Lakers must show a similarly well-balanced approach on offense as they did in Friday’s victory. This means Clarkson and Russell must continue to flash their improved chemistry in the half court, Randle and Nance should look to be effective in their stretches and at least one of the team’s designated scorers must step up.
Asking for a repeat performance from Lou Williams would be ambitious, but an efficient double-digit scoring night from either he or Nick Young could help put the team over the top so long as most else falls into place.
An interesting matchup to watch will be that between D’Angelo Russell and former Laker Ronnie Price. Barring any lineup changes for Phoenix, Price should be the first guard off the bench and while he has never been a scoring threat over his career, his staying power stems from his tough-nosed defense. Going against a veteran defender will be a different look for Russell and it will be worth seeing how he adjusts.
Considering all the above, I will go out on the most fragile of limbs and predict that the Lakers get their third win in a row tonight. It will likely be a close one, but the reeling Suns are truly a mess right now and the Lakers actually have shown an improved cohesion on both ends during their quasi-streak.
So that’s it, Suns lose and the Lakers head into Tuesday’s matchup against the Warriors with a three-game winning streak on their belts. Feel free to save this screenshot for when I’m proven utterly wrong. Until then, enjoy the game.
Where you can watch: 6:30 p.m. start time on TWC Sportsnet or listen to the broadcast on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.