The last time the Los Angeles Lakers visited US Airways Center Kobe Bryant went bonkers, Steve Nash weeped in the locker room, Amare Stoudemire waved goodbye to the Phoenix crowd for the final time and Sasha Vujacic nearly started an international incident with Goran Dragic.
The Suns have since added a Turkoglu, Warrick and Childress and the Lakers have reloaded for another title run with Steve Blake and former Sun Matt Barnes, but for all intents and purposes this is a rematch of the Western Conference Finals.
While the Lakers return their core and just need to integrate Barnes and Blake off the bench, the Suns are still finding themselves, their impressive victory in Utah last night notwithstanding. The Lakers understand their roles having been hardened by a pair of championship runs, and aside from all their talent they plain and simple know how to win games.
The Suns, meanwhile, are kind of learning on the fly. Steve Nash is adjusting to all his new teammates, figuring out how to put them in the best possible situations for success, and Alvin Gentry is tinkering with what rotations work best.
Phoenix has actually played pretty darn well for seven and a half of the first eight quarters of the season. The bench looked comfortable together in Utah, outscoring their counterparts 50-16, but still it will take time for the Suns to develop the kind of camaraderie they enjoyed last season across their 10-man rotation.
The biggest concern the Suns should face against the Lakers is their size. Although Andrew Bynum is out, I’m not sure how the Suns will contend with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom inside and on the boards.
Robin Lopez has done a decent job on Gasol in the past and will need to come up big after a pair of lackluster games to open the season, and I don’t see how Hedo Turkoglu will match up inside against Odom. Perhaps the Suns could dust off Earl Clark or Gani Lawal for a few minutes.
Rebounding will certainly be a factor. The Suns were smashed by 18 on the boards in their opening-game loss in Portland but lost the rebounding battle by just one in Utah. The Suns must keep Gasol and Odom off the boards to have a chance.
There will be lots of emotion in the building. The Suns’ marketing people have been hyping up this game since the schedule came out, it will be nationally televised on ESPN, and it’s the LAKERS for God’s sake, the very team that knocked the Suns out of the playoffs.
I expect an incredible effort from Phoenix, but once again they get hurt by playing Los Angeles on the second half of a back-to-back (for the third time in their last five meetings) while the Lakers have been off since dispatching Houston on Tuesday night.
With San Antonio coming to town on Wednesday, this is a brutal way to open the season.
Even if the Suns were to have opened 0-3 I wasn’t planning on reading too much into it because most teams will lose three games at Portland and Utah and then hosting the Lakers. Getting the win last night takes off even more pressure concerning the possibility of a horrendous start.
The Suns now have nothing to lose. They are playing the champs while trying to figure things out on the fly. A loss would be expected, but a win could make people think twice about writing off the Suns just yet.
Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau, tonight will mark the third time the Suns’ home opener has come against the defending champs. This also happened in 1995 against Houston and 1971 against Milwaukee. … Nash has led or tied for the team lead in scoring in Phoenix’s first two games. That occurred just once all of last season (Jan. 5-6). … The Suns have won 11 all-time season series against the Lakers, lost 23 of them and split eight. … Grant Hill is the second-oldest starter in the league (behind Shaq). Nash is fourth with Jason Kidd No. 3. … Alvin Gentry won his 250th game last night in Utah. Gentry got there in 518 career games, longer than it took 53 of the other 65 coaches to reach that mark. Phil Jackson won that many games in 172 games fewer than Gentry, but he also had Michael Jordan and Gentry had the Clippers.