Records: Lakers 7-2, Suns 6-3
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (20th), Suns 110.9 (4th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.1 (1st), Suns 103.7 (12th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Suns: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes
Injuries: Lakers: Anthony Davis (probable), Rajon Rondo (probable), Troy Daniels (questionable); Suns: Ty Jerome (out)
The Lakers coming in: While the Lakers winning-streak-ending loss to the shorthanded Raptors was disappointing, it served as a reminder that this team still has a ways to go to reach the levels it needs to in order to be a true title contender. This team ranks 20th in offense, is not shooting the ball well, and is having major difficulties creating consistently good looks when LeBron isn’t on the floor.
The flip side to this is that the Lakers are 1st in defense, are protecting the ball on offense, and are finding ways to get LeBron and Davis going offensively even while the rest of the team is up and down. The team’s resulting 7-2 record has them at the top of the conference. If you’d have told me in late September that after three weeks of the regular season this is where the Lakers would be, I’d be happy and looking forward to improvement as the season progresses.
On the news front, Rajon Rondo is listed as probable for this game and Frank Vogel is hopeful he will play tonight. If Rondo does suit up, I’ll be interested in whether he’s on a minutes restriction and even more interested to see what lineups he’s dropped into. What I’ll be less worried about is how well he does or does not play. While it would be great to have him make an immediate impact, as we are seeing with Kyle Kuzma, coming back from a long injury related layoff isn’t ideal and can lead to some rust to work-off and some game legs to regain.
The Suns coming in: The Suns are the most surprising team in the NBA. Expected by many to again be a bottom 10 team in the NBA, the Suns are currently 6-3 with a top 5 offense and a top 12 defense. This is a statistical profile I expected from the Lakers; a profile of a team that is not only a playoff team, but one that could win a round or two.
The Suns are doing it with a remade roster and new head coach Monty Williams. Williams was famously a candidate for the Lakers job, but ultimately did not get a job offer from them and instead went to Phoenix and was immediately offered a 5-year deal. After inking Williams, the Suns went out and traded the #6 pick for Dario Saric and the #11 pick, signed Ricky Rubio in free agency, traded for Aron Baynes, and re-signed Kelly Oubre.
These moves gave the Suns a more balanced roster of veterans to complement uber-talented shooting guard Devin Booker while also establishing a baseline of competence that can execute play to play, night to night. And the results are telling. This group is playing smart basketball, with a high effort level, and it’s led to a confidence that’s translating to more wins than most outside observers would have predicted.
Now, will it last? That remains to be seen. Right now several players are playing at or above career levels. And while you can expect a young player like Booker to make a leap like that at this stage of his career, watching Baynes hit 47% of his 3’s on four attempts a game or Oubre shoot nearly 40% on his four 3-point attempts a game doesn’t necessarily feel sustainable. That said, they’re doing it now and the Lakers would be wise to respect the level which this team is performing or they’ll understand it better after walking away with a loss.
Keys to the game: There are probably a dozen things, both big and small, that interest me in a matchup of these two teams. The Suns rapid turnaround from league doormat to early season force is a great story, but the marquee matchups and the little things both teams will do to try to exploit advantage matter more to me.
Let’s start with Devin Booker, who is a scoring monster and is a unique player type who the Lakers have not yet had to face this season. Booker has good size, is more physical than given credit for, and is a threat to just as easily shoot the deep jumper as he is to get by you off the bounce as he is to run a P&R with effectiveness. I’d imagine the Lakers start with Danny Green on Book, but it would also not surprise me to see Avery Bradley get some chances on him, particularly as the game goes on.
Booker will stretch the limits of the defense, particularly when coming off screens (on and off the ball) to force the Lakers bigs into help situations while guards have to fight over the top of those picks. If the Lakers bigs sit back too far, Booker will hit jumpers. If they press too high, Booker will try to drive by them or into them in order to draw fouls. Discipline is key in this and I would not be surprised to see Davis guard the Suns C in order to be the hedge man more often against these actions.
Where this gets intriguing is that if Davis is used in this way to help defend Booker, he will inevitably end up matched up against Aron Baynes. One of the reasons most often cited to not play Davis at C is to avoid him having to bang with some of the more physical centers in the league. Baynes, who is built like he’s half buffalo-half wildebeest, is a bruising big man who will lean on you, set physical screens, and always make you aware that he’s in the game by just bumping up against you. So, while Davis will be needed to help contain Booker, he may have to pay for that physically by guarding and being defended by Baynes.
On the other side of the ball, what the Suns do to keep LeBron under wraps interests me just as much as how the Lakers try to contain booker. Saric offers good size, but lacks the bulk to keep LeBron off his spots. Similarly, 2nd year forward Mikal Bridges has some great physical tools, but bulk is not one of them. If LeBron and Davis are in the game at PF and C for prolonged stretches this game, the Suns offer a great chance to run some P&R with them in order to break down the Suns defense and either force Baynes to defend the point of attack vs. LeBron on switches or have him hedge and recover in time to Davis diving to the rim.
This is also a matchup where, when both starters on the floor, LeBron is going to need to defend at a high level. Oubre is a nice scoring option with young legs who can get out in transition, hit threes, and get to the rim off the dribble. Unless LeBron is tasked with guarding Rubio (which is a possibility!), he’ll need to chase Oubre around the court and find him in transition — especially if he’s running to the arc.
Lastly, this game will be the 3rd time in their first 10 games that the Lakers will have faced a team that was ranked in the top 5 on offense at the time they’ve played.1The Mavs and Spurs were also top 5. As an aside, the Heat were 12th and the Raptors were 7th while the Clippers aren’t even included here because they were the opening night opponent. So, the Lakers have not faced many slouches. So, as much as it’s fine to question the Lakers schedule to this point of the year, the quality of offensive team they’ve faced gives the team’s defensive rating more credence.
The Suns, of all the other teams the Lakers have faced, however, may be the most balanced of them all. Yes, Booker highlights their attack, but they have 3 other players2Not counting the suspended DeAndre Ayton. averaging at least 13 points a night and 2 more averaging 9 points or more. Additionally, 7 of their rotation players shoot 37% or higher from behind the arc, so they really do have an ability to spread you out and then attack the creases of the defense off the dribble or with the pass to cutters.
I say all this to say, the Lakers will be tested this game. These are not the same old Suns.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com