Prior to the NBA season, talks of “tanking” revolved around several teams. The two main culprits, according to experts, were the Philadelphia 76ers and tonight’s Laker opponent, the Phoenix Suns. The Suns officially started the rebuilding process by dealing Steve Nash to the Lakers before last season. They struggled, as expected, last season on their way to a 25-57 mark. Prior to this season, they rid themselves of solid veterans such as Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, and Luis Scola in order to give more time to young prospects. The Suns have been more competitive than anyone thought under first year head coach Jeff Hornacek, and they currently sit one game above the Lakers in the standings at 11-9. The Lakers come in off of Sunday night’s let down in Kobe Bryant’s return against the Toronto Raptors. The reality of Bryant being back is in full effect, and all members of the roster have to be ready to step into different roles.
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 a true rim protector for the Suns, averaging two blocks per game. He is averaging close to a double-double with averages of 9.8 points per game and 8.5 rebounds a night. Pau Gasol must be aggressive early and look to get the inexperienced Plumlee into foul trouble.
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 (39% from three on 4.5 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. Marcus Morris, the twin brother of fellow Suns’ big man Markieff Morris, is another stretch-four type (41% from three) that the Lakers must pay careful attention to.
Backcourt: The success of the Suns so far starts with the excellent play of their starting backcourt. They start two point guards in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and the combination has worked wonders for them thus far. They have been able to feed off each other’s penetration while being able to stretch the floor enough in order to keep defenses honest. Bledsoe and Dragic put up nearly identical numbers and are the top two scorers on the team. Bledsoe averages 18.6 points and 6 assists per game, while Dragic averages 17.7 points and 6.4 assists a night. Interestingly enough, both average exactly 13 shot attempts per game.
Bledsoe, who served as Chris Paul’s backup the past two seasons with the Clippers, has broken out in a starting role. Bledsoe is one of the more athletic point guards in the league, and is able to defend shooting guards because of this athleticism even with his lack of height (generously listed at 6’1). Bledsoe has made huge strides in his jump shot from last season, although the focus of the Lakers’ defense should still be on keeping him out of the lane and making him hit from the outside. Bledsoe has a very bright future ahead of him.
Goran Dragic started his career as Steve Nash’s backup in Phoenix. He has evolved into a solid starter in the league, and he is one of the craftiest players in the game with the ball in his hands. He excels at getting to the rim and finishing in traffic or finding his teammates. He is a high IQ player who is also capable of getting it going from the outside. Dragic, like Bledsoe, should be baited into hitting from three (only 31% on the season).
Keys to Lakers Victory:
Rediscovering Chemistry on Offense: Sunday night’s game against the Raptors showed just how difficult it will be to integrate Kobe back into the Lakers’ offense. The team was gelling offensively with quick ball movement and drive-and-kick action to shooters who were shooting the ball with great confidence. Kobe is not comfortable with this style of play, indicated by his eight turnovers on Sunday. Look for the Lakers to perhaps involve Kobe in more pick and roll to have him make decisions quickly and get the ball moving quickly from side to side.
Contain Penetration: Containing the penetration of Bledsoe and Dragic is the most crucial component to a Laker victory tonight. These two are the key to everything the Suns do offensively, as their penetration not only creates opportunities for themselves, 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 these two are involved.
Pau Gasol: Nick Young has officially become the Lakers’ leading scorer. This shows just how much the Lakers’ starting lineup has struggled, and Pau must shoulder lots of the blame. Ankle sprain or not, Gasol has to play better. He has struggled mightily with his midrange jumper thus far this year, and has to find a way to get attempts closer to the rim. Against the young and relatively inexperienced Plumlee, Gasol needs to be aggressive and stop settling for 15-17 footers.
Phoenix Suns (11-9) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (10-10)
7:30 PM PST, December 10, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: ESPN Radio 710 ESPNLA
Suns Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Eric Bledsoe
SG: Goran Dragic
SF: P.J. Tucker
PF: Channing Frye
C: Miles Plumlee
Key Reserves: PF Marcus Morris, F Markieff Morris, G Gerald Green
VIDEO: Kobe Bryant Speaks Out The Day After His First Game Back, He’s Reevaluated His Performance