Lakers vs. Suns: What to watch

Well, the coach is in place, but Mike D'Antoni and his crutches won't make their debut until Sunday, meaning the Bernie Bickerstaff era will continue for one more day. And it's pretty important the interim coach go out on a high note. Given the early hole dug by the Lakers, every opportunity to make up lost ground must be seized. The Suns represent nothing if not a beatable opponent. Phoenix may boast a superior record (4-5) than the Lakers, but the Suns have beaten nobody above .500 and don't have a single player who would definitely crack the starting lineup for the purple and gold. Every winnable game L.A. cashes in is another step toward stabilizing the season.

For more insight on the Suns, we sent five questions to Michael Schwartz from the True Hoop network's Valley of the Suns blog. Below are his responses.

Land O' Lakers: Stylistically, what does the post-Steve Nash era look like? What are the primary differences and do any similarities remain?

Michael Schwartz: This season the Suns are running aspects of the “Corner” offense that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman popularized, as Fox Sports Arizona’s Randy Hill described in further depth. That has been an easy adjustment for Suns like Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson, who played for Adelman in recent years. Dragic has been getting everybody involved with dribble penetration and probing for opportunities, and the Suns have run some offense through Scola and Beasley at times in the high post. The Suns still want to play fast, and rank fourth in pace, the highest since 2009-10.

A major difference is the lack of pick-and-roll opportunities. The Suns will still run it at times with Dragic and Gortat, but it’s not the staple it used to be. Jared Dudley used to get open looks when defenses collapsed on the Nash pick-and-roll, so this could be one reason his numbers are down to start the year.

LO'L: Like the Lakers, the Suns are meshing a lot of new faces. Nearly 10 games in, how well is the mission going?

MS: Not too well. The Suns not only turned over half their roster, but their identity as well with the Nash trade. Many of these players have never played together, so there are definitely some growing pains. The past few years, the Suns have utilized fairly set starting and bench rotations, but this year Alvin Gentry is trying different lineup combinations to find something that fits. At this point it’s almost a surprise when a hot reserve of the day, if not an entire bench unit, doesn’t finish the game. Through nine games, the Suns only have two lineups that have played more than 16 minutes together and 20 different lineups have shared the court for at least five minutes.

Dragic and Marcin Gortat are the only players who you know will be playing in crunch time, as Gentry has really mixed and matched otherwise. No combination has really discovered that chemistry quite yet.

LO'L: Michael Beasley feels like the wild card for the Suns this season and perhaps moving forward. How is he fitting in as a potential franchise face?

MS: I definitely agree he’s the wild card for this season, and thus far he’s been a bust more often than he’s been productive. There have been a few gems mixed in like his 21/15/7 outing in Charlotte as well as a 22-point outing in Orlando, but by and large the Suns have been better when he’s riding the pine. That’s why he has sat out Phoenix’s last two fourth quarters, despite them being close games. Gentry said before the season started he wants Beasley to take 18-20 shots a game and that no franchise has ever given him that kind of freedom. Thus far, Beasley’s largely been the same inefficient shot chucker. He’s shooting 35.1 percent and has made more than half his attempts only once all season.

At this point, Goran Dragic is much closer to being the franchise face, although I would argue that you’re in trouble as a franchise when you’re debating between these two players for such a distinction. The talent is still there, as we saw in a dominant preseason effort, but thus far he’s really been the same Michael Beasley he’s always been with some flashes of greatness standing out among overall inefficient, high-volume play.

LO'L: What matchup do you find most intriguing?

MS: If he weren’t in street clothes it would most definitely be Nash facing his former team and former protégé, Dragic. Nash and Dragic are still close and the clash of past vs. future would be fascinating to watch, especially considering all that Dragic learned from Nash. As for a matchup that will actually play out on the court, I will go with the forgotten battle of All-Star vs. protégé, and I’m not talking Kobe vs. Shannon Brown. It’s got to be Dwight Howard against Marcin Gortat. Nobody has seen more of Howard since he entered the league than Gortat, his old sparring partner whose greatness ensured Gortat would be nothing more than a bit player until his trade to Phoenix. Before their first battle, Gortat said, “I know what frustrates this guy, I know what moves he likes to do,” although it remains to be seen how that knowledge will help him on the floor.

Gortat will be fired up to prove himself against the best at the center position, and it surely won’t hurt to have Nash in the audience as the Polish Machine entered this season aiming to prove he’s more than a Nash creation.

LO'L: Prediction?

MS: The Suns have been rather predictable, so I’ll go with the status quo. The Lakers will roll up a 15- or 20-point lead, and Phoenix will fight back to make it interesting before ultimately succumbing. I’ll go with 109-101 Lakers.