Five things to watch in Lakers-Suns matchup
1.What kind of minutes will Kobe Bryant provide? -- Though Lakers Coach Phil Jackson maintained he would limit Bryant's minutes at the beginning of the regular season, he said he'd remain flexible about Bryant's playing time, based on his comfort level and game situations. In the Lakers' 112-110 season-opening victory Tuesday over the Houston Rockets, Bryant scored 27 points on eight of 20 shooting in 37 minutes, a significant improvement in both shooting percentage and minutes compared to his preseason stat line of 12.6 points on 28.2% shooting in 21.6 minutes per contest.
Without citing specifics, Jackson said he may alter Bryant's minutes in the Lakers' (1-0) game Friday in Phoenix (1-1) because they host Golden State at home Sunday, leaving Bryant less room for recovery time.
2. How will the Suns look without Amare Stoudemire? - Stoudemire's departure to New York this off-season because of free agency prompted Suns guard Steve Nash to publicly doubt the team's chances of making the postseason.
"To be honest, if I was outside this picture and a betting man, I would probably pick us to be outside of the playoffs, considering all the changes and the new guys, Nash told the SB Nation Arizona's Seth Pollack.
Of course, Bryant doesn't feel bad for Phoenix's off-season adversities, including losing Stoudemire to free agency and Leandro Barbosa in a trade.
"Good. We'll beat the hell out of them," Bryant said. "That's not my problem. We beat them in the playoffs last year, but they used to kick our butt all time in the playoffs. So I have no sympathy."
The Lakers offered many opinions on how much Stoudemire's departure affects the Suns, considering he averaged 25 points last season in the West Finals against the Lakers and partly contributed to Andrew Bynum getting in foul trouble. Bryant pointed out the Lakers won't have to "double-team a guy in the post." Jackson observed Stoudemire's penchant for high-percentage shots inside that he created, thanks to how perfect he and Steve Nash ran the screen and roll will no longer be an issue, considering center Robin Lopez has struggled so far replicating that same chemistry with Nash. And Lakers forward Derek Fisher actually argued the absence could prove more difficult, considering the Lakers' defense would have to space out more since Hedo Turkoglu, Channing Frye, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Josh Childress can play from the wings.
"I'm sure at times, they'll miss the physicality and power Amare played with, Fisher said. "But I think as time goes on, their ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter complements Nash's penetration ability. I think it'll balance out a little bit. Teams like ours, it may be tough, because you got to have size in the middle, but catching us without Andrew Early and Theo [Ratliff] banged up a little bit, we'll still have to go in there and get some work done."
Although it's one game, Phoenix forward Hakim Warrick demonstrated in the Suns' 110-94 victory Thursday against the Utah Jazz that he knows a thing or two about the screen and roll. All the various contributions tie into what Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry has described as a "continuity offense." Though the Lakers won't have to worry about Stoudemire, the Lakers still have issues. The Lakers' front-court remains fairly thin with Andrew Bynum rehabbing his right knee, backup center Ratliff nursing a sore left knee and Derrick Caracter remaining understandably raw. Still, the Lakers should hold their own against Phoenix, which conceded 18 offensive rebounds in its 106-92 season-opening loss Tuesday to Portland.
"The combination between Stoudemire and Nash has been great in the last two years so that'll be a little timing," Jackson said. "But Phoenix will still be a good team."
3. Can the Lakers keep up with the Suns? Phoenix still maintains that run-and-gun style, and Pau Gasol proclaims he's looking forward to it.
"It'll be up-tempo there, but I think I like running," he said. "I can run up and down the floor. It'll be good for the conditioning too."
Surely it will. Aside from the conditioning Lakers forward Lamar Odom got this summer from the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Jackson emphasized all preseason that no one else on the team looked in peak form. That's obviously still an issue considering the Lakers have only played one game. And there's no better game to test that endurance level than against a quick team such as Phoenix. Plus, the speed Steve Blake and Shannon Brown provided off the bench against Houston shows the Lakers have a unit that could provide that spark plug.
Still, the Lakers shouldn't embrace the up-tempo offense too much. The Lakers played horrible first-half defense against Houston, primarily because their shot selection, poor rebounding (53-44), conditioning and overall hustle exposed the Lakers on transition defense. With the Lakers still ironing out defensive rotations, there's no need for them to force the issue.
4. Will this be a game of matchups?
There's many reasons why this could be a significant variable. Jackson's expecting a big game out of Odom, who's experienced plenty of success against Phoenix in the postseason, posting playoff career highs in points (33 on May 2, 2007), field goals (13 on May 2, 2007), assists (nine on May 4, 2006), rebounds (19 in the Lakers' Game 1 victory last season in the West Finals) and offensive boards (seven in the same game).
"He has a perennial space in which he's done really well," Jackson said of Odom, who posted 14 points and 10 rebounds along with four turnovers in the season opener. "Obviously it's a open floor game. His rebounding and his capability of pushing the ball against this team has always been a big factor."
Considering the Lakers' thin front line and the Suns lacking anyone to truly defend it, Gasol wouldn't be surprised if Ron Artest and Matt Barnes moved to power forward and Devin Ebanks received playing time, two questions that went unanswered because Jackson cut his interview fairly short after Thursday's practice. It wouldn't be surprising either for Jackson to pull Fisher early if he struggles guarding Nash, given Blake saw increased playing time because he held Houston guard Aaron Brooks to six second-half points. He burned Fisher in the first half with 18. Though Sasha Vujacic didn't see the floor in the season opener, Jackson is considering matching him up with Goran Dragic because of their contentious history, but it remains uncertain considering Vujacic's the last man on the back-court depth chart and Dragic is nursing a sprained left knee.
5. Can the Lakers exploit the Suns' short rest? The Lakers spent the last two days practicing since their season opener on Tuesday, a rarity the team experienced in the preseason, what with the training camp consisting of a weeklong trip to Europe, followed by six games in 10 days. The Suns haven't been so fortunate, as they enter Friday's game off a back-to-back in Utah. So with all the talk about Phoenix's fast-paced style, it's the Suns that may have to pace themselves.
"It's not a lot of fun," Fisher said of back-to-backs. "We all have to do it at some point. It's their turn now. I'm sure it will be our turn later."
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shouts to his teammates during the first half of the game against Houston on Tuesday night. Credit: Chris Carlson / Associated Press.