Things to watch in Lakers-Suns matchup
1. How can the Lakers replicate the same type of effort against Detroit tonight against Phoenix.The uncertainty goes beyond the fact the Pistons are 11-24 and have had their own inner turmoil among players and coaching staff. After opening the season with an 8-0 record, the Lakers haven't established a consistent pattern in building off impressive performances. The Lakers capped with a five-game winning streak with a 98-91 victory Nov. 23 against the Chicago Bulls, with the team's resiliency and experience helping the Lakers overcome the challenges. They followed that with their first four-gme losing streak since 2007, a stretch that marked the beginning of the Lakers' current malaise. The Lakers responded with a 5-1 trip in mid-December, but all the wins came against sub. 500 opponents and allowed them to mask their inefficiencies without becoming vulnerable in the standings. Another three-game losing streak ensued, followed with a signature and team-balanced win last week against New Orleans. The Lakers followed that with an uninspiring win against Philadelphia and then a 19-point loss to Memphis.
The Lakers made a start in dismantling Detroit. But what this means entirely? It's hard to say, but the Lakers will provide more answers once they tip against the Suns. Fortunately for the Lakers, Phoenix (14-18) is a ripe opponent at this point in time. The Suns have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games, rank last in total defense and are also last in rebounding.
2. Will Ron Artest build off his performance against the Pistons?It wasn't so much the stats that made Artest stand out Tuesday against his Detroit. His eight points on three of eight shooting appears fairly modest. But it's the way he picked his spots in the offense, came up with two timely steals and was part of a Lakers' 16-2 run to open the third quarter. All of this came against the backdrop of a report from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that said Artest had a confrontation with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, something Jackson acknowledged but said the conversation wasn't loud and something Artest avoided talking about in depth.
Even if Kobe Bryant argued the Lakers, including Artest, should use the scrutiny as a teachable moment, it's unpredictable how this will affect Artest's relationship with the team. Artest made it clear to The Times' Bill Plaschke, among other reporters, that he felt betrayed that the story got out after working diligently the past season in restoring his reputation. Though the motives likely pointed to wanting to find a way for Artest to spark a stagnant start to the season, that may not be the end result. Artest responded on the court in appropriate fashion, but more details will likely emerge out of this situation before it becomes clear what the end result entails.
3. Don't expect Phoenix to light it up from three-point range. The Suns dropped a franchise-record 22 three-pointers, a feat the Lakers rightfully chalked up as nearly impossibly to duplicate and a feat the team also wrongfully downplayed. It's very unlikely the Suns could eclipse that milestone, especially since Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu made 12 of those 22 shots and have since been traded to the Orlando Magic. Channing Frye has also shot 33.7% from downtown in the past nine games. This shouldn't be an excuse for the Lakers to sag defensively considering it's been a season-long issue. But at least they won't get embarrassed in such franchise-setting fashion again.
4. The Suns may shuffle their lineup against the Lakers. The Arizona Republic's Bob Young details how Phoenix lately has featured a small lineup with Grant Hill and Mickael Pietrus at forward and Vince Carter and Steve Nash in the backcourt. But with the Suns featuring the Lakers' frontline in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, it's possible Phoenix will feature Robin Lopez, Frye and Marcin Gortat.
Considering the Suns has managed well when forcing the Lakers to guard them from the perimeter, it's still conceivable Phoenix would stick to their original plan. That's why it's critical Bynum, Odom and Gasol have big games so the Suns have no other choice to worry about guarding the inside. That would then leave the Lakers of not worrying about stretching themselves out on the perimeter, an area they're not as well equipped in guard.
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Photo: Phoenix guard Steve Nash, left, tries to drive past Lakers guard Derek Fisher during the first half of the Lakers' 121-116 loss Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times