The Phoenix Suns come in as perhaps the most surprising team in the NBA to this point, with first-year coach Jeff Hornacek certainly in the mix for Coach of the Year. The Suns, who many saw as one of the teams “tanking” for a top draft pick, come in with a 21-16 record and currently sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They did, however, lose point guard and budding All-Star Eric Bledsoe indefinitely to a knee injury recently.
The Suns have struggled in his absence and have lost four of their last five games. The Suns have defeated the Lakers in both of their previous meetings this season, including an embarrassing 117-90 defeat for the Lakers on December 23rd.
Frontcourt: Second year player Miles Plumlee mans the center position for the Suns while coming off a rookie season in which he only appeared in 14 games for the Indiana Pacers. Plumlee has been a solid addition and is having a breakout season with averages of 10 points per game and 9.1 rebounds a night. He also put up 17 points and 20 rebounds the last time the teams met. The Lakers must match the energy of the athletic Plumlee, and they should look to get him in foul trouble with some post-ups early as he is the only true rim protector the Suns have.
Channing Frye, who missed the entire 2012-2013 season with an enlarged heart, starts at power forward for the Suns. In what has been an outstanding comeback, Frye has remained a deadly outside shooting big man (41.5% from three on 5.4 attempts a game) who thrives off the penetration ability of the Suns’ starting backcourt. The Laker big men cannot afford to fall asleep on Frye, as he is capable of burning them from deep. Frye shoots more than half his shots from beyond the arc. Marcus Morris, the twin brother of fellow Suns’ big man Markieff Morris, is another stretch-four type (38% from three) that the Lakers must pay careful attention to. He torched the Lakers with five triples in their last meeting.
Backcourt: The success of the Suns so far starts with the excellent play of the backcourt. The Suns had been playing two point guards in Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and the recipe was working well. Dragic, who seems to always have a field day against the Lakers, is having a career year with averages of 19.6 points per game to go with 6 assists. Dragic excels at getting in the paint and is one of the best finishing point guards in the league. He is equally capable of creating shots for teammates. He struggled some with his shot earlier this season, but is now up to 38% from beyond the arc. Dragic, who will surely get All-Star consideration this year, is a difficult matchup for Kendall Marshall or whoever else the Lakers will play at point guard.
With Bledsoe out, Gerald Green starts at the two. Green is a streaky player who can fill it up and score in a variety of ways. He is capable of going for 25+ points if he gets hot and must be accounted for as a shooter. He is equally capable of shooting the Suns out of the game, which is what he did in their most recent game against the Knicks (2-16 from the field). Green is more suited for a Jamal Crawford-type role as a scoring guard off the bench, but he will likely continue to start in the absence of Bledsoe.
Keys to Lakers Victory:
Limit Turnovers: The young, athletic Suns rank first in the league in fast break points. While not having Bledsoe makes them less formidable in getting out on the break, the Suns will still look to run. The Lakers rank just 22nd in the league in turnovers per game at 15.6 per night. They will need to be lower than that if they want to pull out a victory against the Suns. With Pau Gasol questionable for the game, the Lakers’ lack of talent makes protecting the ball even more important.
Contain Penetration: Containing the penetration of Dragic is a significant component to a Laker victory. He is the key to everything the Suns do offensively, as his penetration not only creates opportunities for himself, but also for shooters such as Frye and Morris, and easy layup and dunk opportunities for Plumlee. It will be interesting to see how the Laker coaching staff elects to defend the pick-and-roll whenever he is involved now that he has been shooting the ball so well.
Three-Point Makes: The Lakers earlier in the season were among the league leaders in three-point makes per game. They are down to twelfth in that category. With the lack of creators who get can their own shot on offense, the Lakers must rely on ball movement and a penetrate and kick game to generate open looks. They must hit these three-pointers in order to keep up with the high octane Suns. On the flip side, missed threes could lead to Suns run-outs.
The Phoenix Perspective
1. Why the Lakers will win:
Why, Kendall Marshall of course. If anyone has a reason to prove to the Suns they can play basketball it’s Kendall Marshall. He went through three coaches in the span of 10 months and couldn’t get a foothold with any of them. Most recently, he couldn’t get rookie coach Jeff Hornacek’s trust and lost his third-PG spot to Ish Smith who can’t shoot either.
That the Suns were clearly going as young as possible this season and still didn’t have room for a 22 year old PG is a troubling sign. Ish won his coach over with speed, fire and humility that seemed to be lacking from Marshall. Still, Marshall had his supporters who focused on his ability to set up teammates for good shots while ignoring Marshall’s inability to make defenses focus on him or play his own defense on the other end.
I was one of those supporters until he “lost” his third coach in just over a year. If the Lakers win on Wednesday night, it’s because Kendall Marshall showed he’s a really, really good NBA point guard.
2. Why the Suns will win:
The Suns will be itching for a win of any kind, and will likely play as if their lives depended on it. The road is a terrible place for an inexperienced team to regain its footing, so a home game after a two-week roadie against a defensively-struggling rival is a great place to start. The Suns will have to play their very best basketball to win the game.
Phoenix Suns (21-16) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (14-24)
6:00 PM PST, January 15, 2014
US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: ESPN Radio 710 ESPNLA
Suns Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Gerald Green
SF: P.J. Tucker
PF: Channing Frye
C: Miles Plumlee
Key Reserves: PF Marcus Morris, F Markieff Morris, G Leandro Barbosa
Lakers Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Robert Sacre
C: Pau Gasol
Nick Young Proud To Be A Laker Despite Losses