Five things to watch in Lakers-Phoenix matchup
1. The Lakers will respond well after a loss. Coach Phil Jackson expressed uncertainty about how much a day of rest Friday would benefit the Lakers (8-1) in their matchup Sunday at Staples Center against the Phoenix Suns (4-4) since the Lakers had an uninspiring performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves after similar time off. Forward Ron Artest also noticed that the Lakers' poor habits against the Timberwolves on Tuesday carried over into the team's 118-112 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday. But the Lakers will come out with a better effort because the bottom-line result woke them up more than a mediocre performance. The Lakers' practice Saturday also allowed the team to shake off any rust from the day off Friday, so there's no reason the Lakers should not look sharp against Phoenix.
2. The Lakers' front line will bounce back from an off game. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will not combine for seven-for-23 shooting on a regular basis, a stat line that played a large role in the Lakers' loss to Denver. In addition to the poor shooting stroke, Odom was so ineffective that Jackson sat him in the fourth quarter in favor of Shannon Brown (19 points on seven-for-14 shooting). In fairness, though, Jackson also made that move because of Brown's hot hand and because Denver went with a small lineup. Gasol, meanwhile, largely struggled with close- to mid-range shots and appeared to be tired in playing a team-leading 44 minutes, the amount of time he has been on the court for in three of the Lakers' last five games.
The Lakers can't afford bad games from Odom and Gasol, but that should not be an issue against Phoenix. In the Lakers' 114-106 victory against the Suns on Oct. 29, Gasol and Odom combined for 39 points on 18-for-29 shooting, 25 rebounds and 14 assists. Suns forward Hakim Warrick has shown promise, but Phoenix has not fully developed a front-line presence to replace Amare Stoudemire and sorely lacks a rebounder to compete with the Lakers' front line.
3. Don't be surprised if Phoenix goes small.The Nuggets managed to defeat the Lakers with the help of a smaller lineup. Jackson remarked that "they got away with it" when I asked if he expects other teams to try that strategy, but the Suns have good reason to adopt that approach. They don't have the personnel to compete with the Lakers' size. Given Phoenix's philosophy of pushing the ball upcourt, it would be understandable if Steve Nash and Co. felt compelled to see if their speed and versatility are enough to counter the Lakers' inside presence.
Although it hasn't happened yet, Suns Coach Alvin Gentry has publicly mentioned the possibility that he will play power forward Hedo Turkoglu off the bench against larger front lines so Turkoglu can avoid foul trouble. Nash nearly picked up his fourth career triple-double in the Suns' 103-89 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Friday, another thing to consider when weighing whether Phoenix should really consider trading him. Jason Richardson's strong outside shooting gives the Suns a serious perimeter threat.
4. It wouldn't be surprising if the Lakers remain trigger-happy. Though I expect the Lakers' front line to have a significant influence on the game for the reasons listed above, that doesn't mean the Lakers won't engage from the outside. After all, the Lakers went 12 for 27 from three-point range in their first game against Phoenix, prompting Jackson to gently remind them that they should focus more on setting up the bigs. A look at the box score after Sunday's game probably will show that the Lakers' front line dominated, but that unit operates the same way YouTube does -- the bigger the volume of content (or touches), the more quickly critical mass is reached. That doesn't mean the Lakers should aimlessly throw entry passes into double-teams, but games such as Sunday's against Phoenix truly illustrate the difference between a good shot and a great shot.
It's going to be tempting to ignore that lesson, especially when three-point shots go in, but regular-season games are all about building good habits. After coming off a loss in which the large number of three-point shots was partly to blame for the result, the Lakers would be better off correcting that fundamental problem.
5. The Lakers will be able to get away with simply outscoring their opponent, but that does not mean they should fall into that trap. The same philosophy from the factor above applies to this issue. Jackson and guard Kobe Bryant both lamented the team's poor defense in transition and in the interior against Denver, valid assessments that's actually been a problem all season. The Lakers built an aura of being able to simply outscore opponents as if they were the Suns or the Golden State Warriors, but that strategy against Denver backfired.
Even if that strategy works against Phoenix, a team that gives up a lot of points and yields a high number of turnovers, falling into that trap misses the point. I'd argue that some of the flaws in the Denver game pointed to the team's small but fundamental problems catching up to them. Because the Lakers kept cruising toward victories, the defensive issues weren't exactly ignored, but they weren't as visible and worrisome.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol pulls down a rebound against Phoenix center Robin Lopez in the first quarter of the Lakers' 114-106 victory against Phoenix on Oct. 29, 2010. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press
Bottom photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives down the lane against Suns point guard Goran Dragic in the first quarter of the Lakers' 114-106 victory against Phoenix on Oct. 29, 2010. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press