Who'da thunk back in the preseason a March game between the defending champion Lakers and the seemingly-in-limbo Suns would come with mutual meaning attached? Not me. Not my brother. And certainly not most NBA prognosticators.
Well, that's why games are actually played out as scheduled, as opposed to treating late-October predictions as gospel.
Yes, the Lakers are in fact topping the Western Conference, but in a manner more "good enough" than truly dominating. For their part, the Suns are not just virtual locks for a postseason berth, but looking to make a push for home court in the playoffs' opening round.
Strange days, indeed.
With this in mind, Brian and I tracked down Seth Pollack from SBN's excellent Bright Side of the Sun blog for perspective on a Phoenix team playing good roundball at the moment. Topics include Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, the Suns' recently improved defense, Leandro Barbosa's absence, and the steady diet of pick and roll described by our cohort Dave McMenamin.
We also discussed how eventually inserting Robin "Formally Pegged the Considerably Crappier" Lopez into the starting lineup and playing Amar'e at the four has affected the Suns. Pollack has nothing but praise for the Sideshow Bob lookalike:
"It's radically changed the the team both on the floor and personality-wise. Robin is a unique kid. We've not had a guy like him in Phoenix in quite a while. He's a hard-nosed kid. He likes to take hard foul. He's probably the most physical Suns player that I can recall in the last 5-6 years, so he changes the personality that way. His size and presence in the paint is just huge on the defensive end and rebounding. Since he's been in the (starting) lineup, he's had a +6.5 net impact on rebounding differential. The Suns has always been a poor rebounding, and now suddenly, over the last couple of months, we're one of the best rebounding teams."
Pollack also noted how Lopez's offense has been better than advertised as well. Thus, whether you're talking about the twin's one-on-one matchup with Andrew Bynum or any Lakers' foray into the paint, he's a player to keep an eye on.
A few more thoughts below the jump:
-The Suns haven't played since last Saturday, a situation capable of creating fresh legs or rusty execution. While the Lakers should be wary of the former, they need to go out of their way to force the latter. For all of their inconsistency over the last month or so, the Laker D remains at its best seriously disruptive. Early and aggressively, the Lakers need to prevent Phoenix from not missing a beat after a layoff.
-Judging by every Suns game I've watched this season, Stoudemire's decision-making remains his biggest weakness. Pin him into a situation where he's got nowhere to go and a choice to make, and he's often good for a turnover or a terrible shot.
-Channing Frye is hardly a classic big man, much better forcing opposing bigs to step out in space than banging down low, but he's nonetheless Phoenix's third burliest player. With him unavailable due to suspension, the Suns are basically down to their starting frontcourt for any semblance of size. The Lakers need to attack Phoenix's bigs and get them into foul trouble. Extended pine time for either guy, particularly Lopez, and the Suns' defense and rebounding will likely suffer tremendously.
"There's no science with guarding him. I think you just have to try keeping him guessing. He's so good, even on the fly. He's like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. If you try to take one thing way, he audibles and goes to something else. If you give him a steady diet of one look, he's too good. he's too smart. He's going to figure it out."