Records: Lakers 26-7, Suns 13-20
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (6th), Suns 110.3 (9th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (6th), Suns 110.9 (19th)
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: none; Suns: Frank Kaminsky (questionable)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers have won 2 straight games to move into the new calendar year at 26-7, atop of the western conference. Their most recent win was a pretty ugly game over the Mavs on Sunday where both teams were on the 2nd night of a back to back and played like it. The Lakers defense was sharper than it’s been, however, and that attentiveness combined with the Mavs missing some shots led to the Lakers hold the league’s top ranked offense to 94.1 points per 100 possessions — nearly 22 points per 100 possessions lower than their season average.
After the Mavs game there’s a feeling that the Lakers are back on track — particularly defensively. And while I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case, the level of engagement the team has showed on that end has improved since the team’s 4 game losing streak. The hope is that this can continue while the team’s shooting can similarly bounce back to the level it needs to be for this team to operate closer to the top efficiency. The team has slipped to 6th in both offense and defense and while it’s fractions of a point that is keeping them out of the top 5 on both sides of the ball, I’d like to see them consistently perform better to find the stride they’ve shown in earlier parts of the year.
The Suns coming in: Like the Lakers the Suns have won back to back games, but those victories came after a brutal stretch where Phoenix had lost 8 straight. That free fall has dropped the Suns to 10th in the West and only 13-20 overall on the year. It’s a far cry from the 6-3 record they boasted heading into their last game with the Lakers back in early November.
The Suns are back to nearly full strength now, however. Second year big man DeAndre Ayton has returned to the lineup after serving a 25 game suspension for violating the NBA’s performance enhancing drug policy. Ayton was found to have ingested a diuretic, which can often be used as a masking agent for other types of PED’s.
While Ayton is back in the lineup, he has not returned as a starter and instead is backing up Baynes. In the Suns most recent win over the Blazers, Ayton played 20 minutes and scored 6 points on 3-9 shooting but did grab a team high 12 rebounds. We’ll see if Monty Williams keeps Ayton as a backup as he makes his way back, but either way the Suns now have a very nice one-two punch at C with him and Baynes manning the pivot.
Keys to the game: While the Suns are not the same darling of the league that they were back in November, the Lakers cannot let the Suns record fool them into playing relaxed. Phoenix has a top-10 offense and has the ability to put points on the board in bunches — particularly if they get hot from beyond the arc. The Lakers should know this well from their 1st matchup, but time has a way of dulling the memory and the Lakers could just as easily remember that as a bit of luck going their opponent’s way.
That, however, would be a mistake. Booker is a dynamite scorer and in Saric, Baynes, Cam Johnson, and Oubre, the Suns have plenty of guys who can get hot and hit a few threes that turn the game. If Kaminsky plays, he too can stretch the floor and would give the Suns plenty of pick and pop options to spread the Lakers defense thin and make them defend more of the court. If their rotations are not sharp or if their closeouts are short, the Suns can make them pay.
Offensively, LeBron has been on a passing kick lately and while I think he can keep that going vs. the Suns I’d also like to see him find his rhythm as a scorer this game. The last couple of contests LeBron’s jumper has not been falling, so I’m hoping that trend reverses tonight. If LeBron can knock down a few early jumpers, it should only open up his driving lanes more and allow him to get the rim where layups or kickouts to open shooters can boost the team’s offensive attack even more.
Another key to this game will be whether the Lakers bench can continue to put up big points. With Bradley back in the starting lineup, KCP’s scoring punch has mixed well with Kuzma in his return from injury. Add in some really good minutes from Dwight lately and the team’s reserves have been really good at keeping and, in some cases, extending leads when LeBron has been on the bench. If they can keep it up this game, the Lakers have a good chance of running away with this game in the 2nd half.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com