The quest for a perfect season now fallen to the wayside, the Lakers will attempt a new winning streak. They're playing host to the Phoenix Suns, a 4-4 team they've already beaten this season and searching for its identity. There are new fellas on board, some (Hakim Warrick, for example) paying bigger immediate dividends than others (Hedo Turkoglu, for example). Phoenix still takes a lot of threes, but no longer operate in helter-skelter breakneck style 24/7. (Hard as it may be to wrap ones head around it, the Lakers are the team playing at a considerably quicker tempo.) Steve Nash will always keep them respectable -- 13's play this season has been outstanding -- but the franchise's uncertain direction has the rumor mill churning out gossip about potential relocation for the iconic point guard.
Throw it all together and this seems like a reasonable team to reach 9-1 against. Here are a few items to watch after the ball jumps.
Attacking Phoenix's D
Back in the "Seven Seconds or Less" days, I regularly contended Phoenix's defense, while hardly the second coming of the Bad Boy Pistons, was better than reputed. The high number of points surrendered was in part the result of pace, while opponents' field-goal percentage against them was actually about middle of the pack. These days, however, the Suns are labeled a bad defensive team, and the numbers back the criticisms. 107 points surrendered, with team sinking nearly 48 percent of shots fired. Only the Kings afford them bragging rights over a 108.1 defensive efficiency clip. Any way you slice it, the Suns are easy to slice up.
They appear to be exceptionally vulnerable the closer opponents get to their cup.Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
Shannon's got the right idea about where to look for points against Phoenix.
Opponents are shooting 70.2 percent against the Suns down low, making them the NBA's second worst team at successfully challenging close attempts. (At least the 2-6 Wizards can chant "We're No. 1!" about something.) The lack of basket protection at point-blank range makes sense. Phoenix doesn't block many shots, and save Robin Lopez (prone to foul trouble), the big man rotation consists of Hedo Turkoglu, Channing Frye and Hakim Warrick, which ain't the most intimidating defensive trio ever assembled to battle fours and fives. (For that matter, they're not who'd I bank on to enforce the "no layups rule.")
Oddly enough, teams tend to take a low amount of point-blank shots against Phoenix. Whether that's because Phoenix does a decent job preventing the ball from moving inside or simply seduces challengers into a long-ball contest, I couldn't tell you for sure. But I do know the Lakers boast a considerable size advantage against the Suns, and I also know they've drifted from this strength away during the last two games. A date against this Pacific division foe seems the perfect opportunity to rediscover an inside-out identity.
Need another reason to take residence in Phoenix's painted area? The Suns do an awful job of keeping teams away from the offensive glass. Even worse than the Lakers, whose struggles have been well documented on this blog. A 64.84 defensive rebounding rate makes Phoenix the NBA pits, and Frye, their best defensive rebounder (4.4 per contest ), is tied for 59th highest among peers. (By comparison, the Lakers, for all their issues, still have two guys in the top-10 and three guys in all ahead of Frye.)AP Photo/Matt York
Pau and the gang need to dominate Phoenix on the boards.
The Lakers are outstanding on offensive glass as it is, but Phoenix is a team particularly vulnerable to allowing second chance opportunities. Should the Lakers consistently fixate their offense around the interior, whatever shots they miss appear easily redeemable. The Suns give up nearly five more rebounds than they grab every game, so all things being equal, this is a setting where the Lakers should control the boards.
(Note: All things are not guaranteed to be equal, however. The Suns are actually solid at collecting their own misses, whether measured by the offensive rebounds average or rate. Considering how few shots Phoenix take from 10 feet or in, I imagine many of those grabs are various Phoenicians collecting long misses. But still, second chances are second chances, and they're especially deadly against a squad with the Suns' ability to put up points. If the Lakers aren't careful, their own mediocrity on the defensive glass could come back to bite them.)
The young season has been outstanding for Lamar. A summer spent with Team USA doing wonders for his rhythm and he's made the most of his role as a starter with Andrew Bynum still on the mend. His last two games, however, have been fairly quiet. Tuesday against Minnesota, foul trouble led to long stints spectating from the pine, and in the most recent loss, Odom felt invisible. Granted, he didn't play the entire fourth quarter, which Phil Jackson said was a reaction to Denver's small lineup, but even before taking a seat, there wasn't much presence, despite grabbing a dozen boards.P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty Images
We wanna see "Good Lamar," not
"Where the heck are you, Lamar?"
Given Lamar's bouts with inconsistency, it would be easy for fans to peg those two games as the start of an inevitable swoon. I tend to cut him a little more slack because of his outstanding play and attitude so far, plus the general belief LO often brings more to the table than recognized or appreciated even while erratic.
That said, another game without impact would be legitimately disappointing (if not automatically alarming). Lamar crushed Phoenix to the tune of 18/14/5 in October and his numbers against the Suns have been strong throughout his career. Matched up against Turkoglu, it's not even debatable who has the advantage. This is the perfect game to provide reassurance for anybody concerned.