Five things to watch in Lakers-Suns matchup
Some things to keep an eye on when the Lakers (17-12) host the Phoenix Suns (12-18) on Friday evening at Staples Center:
1. Look for Kobe Bryant to try to have a big game. He still stews over those first-round exits in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs. Well, duh. But Bryant admitted that that plays into his mentality about why he goes on a scoring rampage against Phoenix. He did the same thing in the Lakers' 99-83 victory Jan. 10, when he scored 48 points despite feeling the early pain in the torn ligament in his right wrist. Derek Fisher has observed that Bryant loves to do this particularly against Grant Hill because he's considered a top defender and entered the league shortly before him.
This strategy may or may not be a good thing. Bryant's numbers have drastically dropped from January to February in points per game (31.2, 24.5) and shooting percentage (45.5%, 37.1%) even though the minutes have remained similar (39.2, 39.1). After going five-of-18 from the field in the Lakers' 84-76 win Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks, Bryant maintained he'd find various ways to receive better looks so he's not always meeting double or triple teams. Bryant didn't speak to reporters after Thursday's practice, so we'll have to wait to get our answers about how he'll adjust against Phoenix.
2. The Lakers have will have their hands full with Steve Nash. If Father Time hasn't already proved to be enough of an adversary, it's possible Derek Fisher could face some limitations against Phoenix. Though it's unlikely his 524 consecutive-game streak will be threatened, Fisher left Thursday's practice because of sinusitis. Meanwhile, Nash has maintained his efficiency despite turning 38 this year. He's taken on more of a scoring load this season without Amare Stoudemire. Nash leads the NBA with 10.7 assists per year. And, yeah, it's only been a week since the Lakers saw New York's Jeremy Lin and Toronto's Jose Calderon torch them in the backcourt.
4. Can the Lakers' bench grow off recent progress? It remains fleeting. But at least compared to what it once was, the Lakers have shown some improvement in their bench. Since returning to the lineup from a rib injury, Steve Blake hasn't matched his offensive production in points (7.3 points pre-injury, 5.8 points post-injury) or field-goal percentage (47.6%, 32.5%). But he's immediately improved how it runs its offense. According to 82games.com, the Lakers' current second unit has spent 38.7 minutes together on the court, with a 60% win percentage. Lakers rookie guard Andrew Goudelock cracked double figures against Atlanta for the first time in 11 days. Troy Murphy has averaged six points, an improvement from his season average of 3.9 points. It's too early to say the Lakers will feature a stronger bench, but they're showing signs it might.
5. How will Shannon Brown perform on his second return to L.A.? It likely won't have the same feel as the first time. But Brown surely will want to have a good outing against his former team. The only problem: Brown has shown the same inconsistency off the Suns' bench as he did with the Lakers. Brown has averaged nine points on 38.2% shooting, and Hoopdata shows his only success has come at the rim.
-- Mark Medina
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