Though the Lakers come off a two-point loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, the team has shown flashes of the potential that had many analysts predicting them to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Bernie Bickerstaff has filled in admirably as interim coach, and this will likely be his last game in a head-coaching role with the Lakers as new hire Mike D’Antoni will sit this one out but is expected to coach his first game on Sunday. Led by a strong performance by Kobe Bryant as well as a defense that has played with great energy the last few games, the Lakers gave the conference-leading Spurs all they could handle despite 17 turnovers (compared to just eight by the Spurs) and another dreadful shooting performance from beyond the arc (6-20).
The Phoenix Suns enter the game with a record of 4-5. The great potential story lines behind this game will both be absent due to the fact that Steve Nash will miss at least another week with injury while D’Antoni will not coach this game. D’Antoni won Coach of the Year with the Suns during the 2004-2005 season and led the team to four consecutive 50-win seasons. Nash is arguably the greatest player in Suns franchise history, leading the team to two conference finals appearances and winning two MVP awards while playing for D’Antoni.
The current Suns team has zero players remaining from the 2007-2008 team, the last year D’Antoni was head coach.
Frontcourt: The Suns, unlike most teams that face the Lakers, have the ability put up points against both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard at both positions. Luis Scola starts at the power forward position and he comes into the game putting up his usual solid numbers at 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Scola makes up for his lack of athleticism with toughness around the basket as well as crafty post moves.
Marcin Gortat, once Dwight Howard’s backup on the Orlando Magic, starts at the center position. Gortat has evolved into a top 10 player at the center position and is not only a scoring threat from both the mid-range and low-post, but also leads the NBA in blocks. The Lakers should still have an advantage offensively at these positions, but they must limit the scoring opportunities of both Gortat and Scola to be successful.
The wildcard in the frontcourt for the Suns is recent free-agent acquisition and former number two overall pick Michael Beasley. Beasley has been stubbornly inconsistent throughout his NBA career, but still does possess the ability to score in a variety of ways. He has struggled so far this year, but at 23 year sold he still has room to grow. The Suns are counting on him to evolve into a go-to scorer for them in the near future.
Backcourt: Goran Dragic returned to the Suns this past off-season, where he spent the first two and half years of his career as Steve Nash’s back up. Early in his career, Dragic demonstrated his explosive scoring ability by scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter of a 2010 playoff victory over the San Antonio Spurs. He enters this game as the Suns leading scorer at 16.6 points per night, and has evolved into a nice playmaker as well while averaging 7.5 assists a game. Dragic will have an advantage in this matchup with Nash out, and Darius Morris and Chris Duhon must work to keep him out of the lane.
Jared Dudley starts at the off-guard position for the Suns, and former Laker Shannon Brown is the Suns’ key reserve. Dudley is a solid role player who is a good three-point shooter, but he is best served as a reserve on a good team. Expect him to have a difficult time defending Kobe Bryant on the perimeter and Brown to get a majority of the minutes off the bench. Brown, a former fan favorite for his tremendous leaping ability while in Los Angeles, enters the game as the Suns’ second leading scorer and averaging a career high 14.4 points per game.
Keys to Victory:
Win the Rebounding Battle: The Suns rank eighth in the NBA in rebounding. This is the one statistical category in which they can compete with the Lakers. The Lakers should have no trouble putting up points against the Suns, who are the third worst defensive team in the league in opponent’s points per game. The Lakers should be able to limit their turnovers below their league leading 18 per night, and if they are able to win the rebound battle as well then they should be victorious.
Vintage Pau Gasol: Pau Gasol must be more aggressive, to put it simply. Against the Spurs, where he finished just 3-10, Gasol settled for fade-away jumpers from the post after he was able to get good post position down low. It is all mental with Gasol, who showed he still has the ability to dominate a game this summer in the Olympic Gold medal game while representing Spain. Gasol is shooting only 40 percent from the field for the Lakers through eight games, and this will not get it done if they want to still be playing in June.
Phoenix Suns (4-5) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (3-5)
7:30 PM PST, November 16, 2012
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
CA TV: TWCSN
Suns Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Goran Dragic SG: Jared Dudley SF: Michael Beasley PF: Luis Scola C: Marcin Gortat
Key Reserves: G Shannon Brown, F Markieff Morris, G Sebastian Telfair