The Lakers enter tonight’s game vs. the Suns 5-8 and on a 3 game losing streak. They left Los Angeles nearly a week ago, with a .500 record but losses to the Celtics, Wizards, and Bucks have dropped them downards, with only tonight’s game in Phoenix serving as the buffer between some slight redemption and a winless roadie.
The last time these teams squared off, it was a high scoring affair that saw Lonzo Ball play one of his best games — he took over down the stretch, scoring key baskets on drives against a disorganized Suns team. Lonzo finished with 29 points, including 8 in the final period to bring the win home, and was only an assist shy of earning a triple-double while leading them to a W.
The question now, though, is how much can we actually take away from that game. You see, those Suns were terrible. They’d clearly quit on head coach Earl Watson who was fired within days of losing to the Lakers. Since starting 0-3 on the year (including that loss to the Lakers and two games where they were down by 50 — YES 50 POINTS — only to lose by 48 and 42 respectively), the Suns are actually a respectable 5-6. In other words…maybe the Suns aren’t the worst team ever. They’re only a half-game behind the Lakers in the standings right now.
The Suns are also a different team, roster wise, from the one that the Lakers played earlier. Eric Bledsoe has been traded away, which leaves a hole in leadership and production in the backcourt. Tyler Ulis and Mike James now man the PG spot, which gives them a different look and shifts offensive burdens onto other players on the roster — most notably TJ Warren, James, and, if even possible, Devin Booker.
Getting back to tonight, then, it seems better to mostly throw out what happened in the 2nd game of the year even if some of the same game plan applies.
First, that means slowing Devin Booker. While Corey Brewer played a key role in the first matchup, this duty will mostly fall on KCP’s shoulders tonight. This matchup is the exact type that KCP was signed for, as a chaser who can combat off-ball screen actions and be shifty enough on the ball when defending P&R’s against primary scorers. He’ll need help in the form good communication and proper hedging/clearing of angles and space from his bigs, but KCP will need to be on his horse tonight to ensure Booker doesn’t get some revenge.
Second, the front court is going to matter a great deal tonight, on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, I’m interested in seeing whether Luke goes to Ingram or Kuzma to defend TJ Warren. The Suns 2nd leading scorer has some scoring chops and, while listed as a SF, has good enough size to give Ingram some issues with his strength. Against the Bucks, Walton turned to Kuzma (and later Julius Randle) to defend Giannis and I wonder if he’ll do the same for Warren this game in order to slide Ingram onto rookie Josh Jackson.
Offensively, this is a game where Brook Lopez will need to get buckets. The Suns aren’t a good defensive team and both their centers prefer to defend the paint rather than lurking around the arc contesting long jumpers by a stretch 5. If Lopez can find the range on his jumper early, it will open up a lot of the Lakers offense, particularly the types of driving lanes and space for cuts that this team needs to score efficiently.
Further, I am interested in seeing if Lonzo can carry over his offensive success in Milwaukee to PHX tonight. Against the Bucks his outside jumper was falling, which opened up his driving lanes even further. Once in the paint, he showed better balance between shooting and passing, which kept the defense guessing and allowed him to both score and pass more effectively as the night wore on.
Can he strike that same balance tonight? Will he knock down a few of his jumpers to ensure the defense has to play him more honestly? Will he look to finish in those in-between spots coming off P&R’s; those five and eight footers there for the taking when the big man drops to the front of the rim to contest layups? For Lonzo it’s a game to game thing on how well his individual scoring will hold up, with most nights his it not going well. But coming off a good game and now facing a team he had some success vs. earlier this year, I’m interested in seeing how it goes.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sustainability of the Lakers level of play, especially defensively (a topic we discussed on our recent podcast with Mike Trudell) and am still not entirely sure what to make of this team. They come into this game vs. the Suns with the 6th best defense in the entire NBA. Since October 23rd, over the team’s last 10 games, the Lakers are actually tied for the 2nd best defense in the league allowing only 98.8 points per 100 possessions.
This is, frankly, uncharted territory for any Lakers team of the last 5 years and probably not since the team was contending for championships to have a stretch, during any part of the season, with a defense performing to this level relative to the rest of the league. In short, then, I don’t know if the Lakers defense is for real, but they’re close to making believers out of me as being at least a “good” defensive team. Considering I thought a finish in the 20-25 range in defensive rating for the season would be a major success for this year’s team, I’ll take “good” every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.