To quote my mom, "Here's the thing:" Losing Amare Stoudemire hurts the Suns. A lot. Yes, his defense (as it were) never served to elevate the Suns, but overall, he's one of the best power forwards in the NBA. A team can't lose that type of talent without feeling the effects. Still, wait before breaking out the shovels and hiring a priest to deliver last rites on last year's Western Conference finalists. Two seasons ago, after Stoudemire suffered a partial tear in his retina and missed the team's final 29 games, the Suns won a reasonably respectable 16 of them, including 12 of their last 17.
Different team, different time, no question, but that the Suns will fall off the ends of the NBA's earth this year is hardly a given. Without Stoudemire, Steve Nash doesn't have another star to work with, but Phoenix did at least attempt to replace the production, bringing in Hakeem Warrick, Hedo Turkoglu, and Josh Childress. Point being, the cupboard isn't bare. The Suns should still be competitive- certainly the Jazz would agree- and thanks to their unconventional style, a tough opponent night-to-night.
Meaning if the Lakers don't show up to play, dreams of an 82-0 season could die before they've even had a chance to spread their wings and fly. Here's what to watch for...
1. Rebounding. The Suns could still be pretty good, but it doesn't mean they'll be good in every respect. Defense, for one. Some things don't change. And rebounding. Definitely rebounding. They'll grab their share on the offensive side, simply because the Suns take so many long and transition shots, which lend themselves well to ORB's. But on the other end? Phoenix was the second worst defensive rebounding team by percentage in the NBA a year ago, and that was with Stoudemire, and Lou Amundson (now in Golden State). The current roster doesn't lend itself to much improvement along those lines. Robin Lopez, Channing Frye, and Turkoglu are the only three significant rotation players 6'10" and over, and the latter two are hardly considered glass eaters.
In Tuesday's opener, the Lakers were outrebounded by the Rockets 53-44. That ratio needs to tighten, if not swing in L.A.'s favor Friday night. More importantly, the Lakers have an opportunity, if they stay aggressive, to earn scads of second chance points. It happened in last season's playoffs in those moments where the Lakers were most effective against the Suns, and it can happen again. Should happen again, actually.
2. Lamar Odom. As Phil Jackson noted Thursday at practice, Phoenix is the type of team against whom Odom should thrive. They encourage an open floor game, and have no natural fit against him on the defensive end. His play was strong throughout the preseason, and Tuesday night he was an incredibly positive force while on the floor against the Rockets. Unfortunately, he wasn't out there as much as he should have been, thanks to foul trouble. At least three of the five fouls Odom earned on the night were, to be charitable, bad. A pair of charges folks in the 300 level could see coming, and a bad push off going for an offensive board.
The Suns offer a great opportunity for Odom to continue building on a strong start. Drop him in the low post and Gasol at the high post, and if the Lakers display the sort of off-ball movement offensively they showed Tuesday night easy baskets should be plentiful thanks to the passing ability of their bigs.
3. Steve Nash. In years past, the goal has always been to turn Nash into a scorer, limiting his ability to do damage through his teammates. Now, Nash is taking larger role in point production. The sample size is only two games, but Nash enters tonight's action averaging 14.5 shots vs. 12.2 last season, and 22 points, up from 16.5 a year ago. Meanwhile, his assists are down to 5.5 a night from 11. Again, small sample size, but indicative of a guy whose role has changed, and is adjusting to new teammates. The pick and roll from Nash to Stoudemire was almost automatic, as were drives and kicks to open shooters on the perimeter. Now the former isn't an option while the latter is easier to defend, because Phoenix doesn't have the same threatening presence diving through the paint.
Nash has always been capable of filling it up. He can penetrate to nearly any spot on the floor, shoot from any angle, rain down three pointers, and is an eleventyzillion percent free throw shooter. He's just always been able to generate more points for his team by tempering his own point totals in exchange for wider distribution. But given Phoenix's new reality, how do the Lakers defend Nash tonight? It makes sense to continue locking down the other guys. Stay home on shooters, watch the back door cuts. Nash's nature is to distribute. The more games Phoenix plays, the more he'll want to develop chemistry with his teammates.
The Lakers benefit by delaying that process one more night.
4. Shannon Brown. His preseason was outstanding, his season debut even better. Tuesday, Brown knocked down four critical three pointers in the second half en route to 16 points in only 21 minutes. The right thumb injury nagging him through the second half of last season has healed, resurrecting Brown's confidence on the floor in both his shot and comfort with the offense, whether working off the ball or in directing traffic. The next step, though, is decision making. As he gains even more faith in his skills, knowing when to deploy them. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. At different points last season, even early when Brown was playing well, his shot selection and decisions with the ball were sometimes questionable. Phoenix encourages that sort of behavior with their up tempo style. They want opponents to skip all the healthy stuff on the shelf and go straight for the shiny wrappered, sugary candy.
Brown- like his teammates- can't oblige.
Just a reminder: After the game, join us for another edition of Lakers Late Night, our new live and interactive postgame show. We'll send out a link later in the day leading everyone to the page, but if you can, plan to carve a little time out of your nightly routine to stop in and participate.
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