The 2014 preseason has been an up-and-down one for the Los Angeles Lakers, as they earned a victory against the Nuggets in the opener, followed by three consecutive blowout losses — two to the Warriors and the final one to the Jazz. However, the purple and gold bounced back on Sunday, overcoming a 16-point halftime deficit to defeat Utah 98-91 in their rematch. Next up on the schedule is last season’s biggest surprise team — the Phoenix Suns. The Suns are coming off a win as well, beating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs 121-90 on Thursday.
Frontcourt: Coach Jeff Hornacek has experimented with his starting five through the team’s first four preseason games, going with a different lineup in each game so far. One player getting a lot of minutes under Hornacek is newcomer Anthony Tolliver, who has started two of the three games he has played in so far, and he saw 30 minutes of action in the one game that he came off the bench. Phoenix hopes that Tolliver can effectively replace Channing Frye as the team’s starting stretch four, giving the guards more room to operate and an added weapon to the offense.
At the other forward is P.J. Tucker, who averaged 9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season while shooting 38.7 percent from the three point line. Despite nearly averaging double figures in points, Tucker’s specialty is on the defensive end, where he will likely draw the defensive assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant. Tucker, at 6’6″ and approximately 224 pounds, is a physical wing defender that does an excellent job of making the man he’s guarding work hard for everything they get. This should be another great preseason test for Bryant as he continues to work his way back with the regular season just a week away.
Miles Plumlee gets the start at center for the Suns in his third season. The 26-year-old averaged 8.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game a year ago, but what he brings to the table fits extremely well with Hornacek’s game plan. Plumlee does a terrific job of running the floor, often beating his man up the court for some easy buckets in transition. He is also a great athlete for a big man, which helps him be the beneficiary of some lobs at the rim from the Suns’ guards. Much like Jordan Hill, Plumlee possesses a high motor and works hard on the glass on both ends.
Backcourt: The strength of the Suns lies with their guards, most notably Goran Dragic, the recipient of last year’s Most Improved Player award. A major factor in winning the award was Dragic’s efficiency, as he shot 50.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from the three-point line en route to 20.3 points per contest to go along with 5.9 assists. Dragic thrives in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets, making him a perfect fit with the team’s offensive schemes. The lefty guard will look to push the tempo, but he knows how to utilize screens in half court sets to create good shots for himself and his teammates. Dragic is a supreme talent that is a tough cover for opposing defenses night in and night out.
Dragic’s backcourt running mate is Eric Bledsoe, who is back and healthy again after missing 39 games last season due to a knee injury. Bledsoe received a hefty pay raise recently from Phoenix, upping his salary to $13 million this season. In his 43 games played last year, Bledsoe averaged an impressive 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. The 24-year-old is a fantastic athlete who is able to break down his man off the dribble and cause problems for opposing defenses by getting into the paint. His great athletic ability combined with his strength allows him to excel on the defensive end as well. Even though he has had some trouble with injuries, Bledsoe could very well be a star in the making.
Things to Watch For:
Pick and Roll Defense: Phoenix will give the Lakers a heavy dose of pick and rolls with either Dragic, Bledsoe or Isaiah Thomas off the bench running the show. Byron Scott wants the Lakers to develop a reputation of being a tough defensive team, and the Suns will provide a difficult test for this group on that end of the floor. It will be important for the perimeter players to fight through the screens so that the bigs can get back to their man, who will likely be capable of diving to the basket and finishing inside, or having the ability to step out and knock down a jumper after setting the on-ball screen. In addition, the Laker big men need to hedge the screens in order to make the ball handler take at least a step or two away from the basket. The team’s defensive rotations will need to be on point, helping out and giving others time to recover or switch if necessary. Defensive communication will be crucial if the Lakers don’t want to give up a sizeable amount of points.
More Julius Randle: Scott has been hard on Randle so far, pushing the rookie to get in better shape and play hard at all times. In their win against the Jazz, Randle showed in the second half why the franchise was ecstatic to get him with the seventh overall pick. He was shooting the ball confidently from midrange without hesitation and still took advantage of his ability to drive to the basket. With that being said, Randle still had just eight shot attempts in the victory, connecting on four of those tries. He also impressed on the defensive end by doing a better job of contesting shots, ultimately blocking two of them. Randle’s second half performance sparked further excitement from Laker fans, and it finally garnered him some praise from Scott. It’s time that the youngster sees some more offensive touches, as the second unit should be feeding him the basketball as often as they can.
More Energy From the Tip: The Lakers have been outscored in every first half of their five preseason games. In the last four, they’ve been outscored by an alarming average of 20.5 points in the first half. It’s important for a team to develop good habits early on, and lackadaisical play to start games is recipe for a long and frustrating season. The Lakers need to steer away from this trend by picking up their intensity on defense while improving their ball movement on offense. The team had just three assists in the first half on Sunday and 15 in the second half. The effort that was displayed in the second half needs to be replicated in the beginnings of games from now on as well.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Lakers are 5.5-point underdogs against the Suns via Sportsbook.ag.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-3) vs. Phoenix Suns (3-1)
7:00 PM PST, October 21, 2014
Honda Center, Anaheim, California
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Suns Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Eric Bledsoe
SG: Goran Dragic
SF: P.J. Tucker
PF: Anthony Tolliver
C: Miles Plumlee
Key Reserves: PG: Isaiah Thomas SG: Gerald Green PF: Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Ronnie Price
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Jordan Hill
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