With any chance of salvaging their season long gone, the Lakers (and especially Nick Young) are mostly attempting to play spoiler against a number of Western conference playoff hopefuls. Their remaining slate features matchups against each of the current bottom four Western conference playoff squads along with 9th ranked Dallas. Starting with tonight’s game against the Suns, the Lakers will have a hand in shaping the first round in a conference that will very possibly remain undecided until the last day of regular season play.
Like any other team in contention for a playoff seed in the West, the Suns won’t simply roll over. The Suns may have been the biggest surprise of the season as they sit at 44-29 in an extremely competitive conference. The return of Eric Bledsoe has been seamless as they are 8-2 since his return and have won six straight. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Bledsoe and running mate Goran Dragic are making a strong case for best backcourt in the West (and possibly, the league); the Lakers will need to contain Phoenix’s dynamic guards to stay in striking distance in this one.
Frontcourt: Miles Plumlee starts at the five for the Suns and has been a pleasant surprise in his second year as a pro. Widely regarded as less promising than his brother Mason (of the Brooklyn Nets), Miles has closed the gap significantly with his defense and rebounding. While Mason remains the far more polished offensive player, Miles has carved out his own role on a very good Suns team, averaging a stellar 8.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 25 minutes a night.
Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker will get the start alongside Plumlee. In his eighth season, Frye continues to operate as the archetypal “stretch four”. He’ll rarely get caught playing down low on offense, but he has proven willing to man up bigger guys defensively. Tucker is a 28 year old University of Texas product who had an abbreviated stint in the NBA, followed by years of overseas basketball before finding a real place in the league. Despite only having played 168 career NBA games, Tucker is essentially a veteran and has become a reliable player in the Suns’ rotation.
Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris should share the allotment of backup minutes. The Morris brothers have a reputation for being inseparable and eerily similar. Fortunately for the Suns, their similarities extend to the basketball court, giving them not one, but two versatile forwards that can play any of the frontcourt positions for stretches during the game. Despite taking a back seat to his brother in college, Markieff has proven to be a better pro as he is a more reliable defender. He is a key contributor off the bench for the Suns, averaging a gaudy 13.8 points and 5.9 boards in limited minutes.
Backcourt: While Eric Bledsoe struggled with injuries throughout the year, Goran Dragic’s lack of an All Star selection this year is in part, unfortunate, but also in part, a glowing testament to the volume of talent in the Western conference. Regardless of official “selections”, the Suns backcourt is home to two All-Star caliber players in Bledsoe and Dragic. In his first year as a full-time starter, the super-athletic Bledsoe – dubbed “mini-Lebron” by some – has proven that he can produce at a high level even against first-team defenses. He is a well-rounded guard who can get to the rim and shoot the long ball, as well as create shots for his teammates. He is also a tremendous rebounder for his size and a persistent defender.
Like his backcourt mate, Dragic is both a gifted passer and scorer. We knew that years of playing behind Steve Nash had shaped him into a skilled playmaker, but Nash’s judicious shot selection seems to have also rubbed off on him. This season, Dragic has become a model of efficiency, shooting a ludicrous 51.5% from the field and 42.8% from deep. It goes without saying that he has improved as a player. But, we cannot overlook the fact that he has become more scrupulous in his shot selection as well, which has resulted in him shattering his previous year’s shooting percentage by more than 7% on nearly 2.5 additional field goal attempts a game.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory:
Maintain Energy and Effort Level: The Lakers on the floor need to consistently play with a high motor if they are going to keep this one competitive. The strength of the Suns is their starting backcourt, but their incredible depth in the frontcourt cannot be underestimated. While they may lack an All-Star presence in the frontcourt, each and every one of their rotation players comfortably belongs in the league. In an era where placeholder seven footers log twenty or more minutes a game for a healthy handful of teams, this is an underappreciated luxury. Accordingly, there will always be an above average and versatile group in the game and the Suns won’t let up even when their second unit takes the floor. Mike D’Antoni should keep a short leash on sluggish Lakers as this Suns team won’t hesitate to throw the knockout punch if the Lakers are content to go through the motions.
Keep Bledsoe and Dragic out of the Paint: Even without Bledsoe for a chunk of the season, the Suns boast the sixth highest scoring offense in the league at 105.4 points per game. Their offense goes as their backcourt goes and both Bledsoe and Dragic are triple threat players that can shoot, drive, and pass the ball. If there’s one thing that the Lakers have, it’s athleticism and depth at the wing positions. Mike D’Antoni will need to keep fresh legs in the game at all times to limit dribble penetration and, by extension, playmaking out of Phoenix’s star guards.
Defense: Enough ink has been spilled on this one, but it’s worth saying again that the Lakers will not win ball games if they continue to be disinterested defensively. In their two most recent wins, they held their opponents to under 100 points in each game. This has to be a goal for tonight, especially since the Lakers are coming off of a game in which they surrendered an embarrassing 143 points to the Timberwolves.
Phoenix Suns (44-29) at Los Angeles Lakers (24-48)
6:30 PM PST, March 30, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
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: Channing Frye
C: Miles Plumlee
Key Reserves: SG: Gerald Green, PF: Markieff Morris, PF: Marcus Morris
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Kent Bazemore
PF: Jordan Hill
C: Chris Kaman
Lakers’ Kobe Bryant Meets With Jim Buss, ‘Goal Is To Win And Win Now’