Preview: Phoenix Suns (4-4) at Los Angeles Lakers (8-1)

Suns 121, Lakers 116



PHOENIX — An NBA schedule cannot get much more difficult than the gauntlet the Phoenix Suns will face the next five days.

Starting with tonight’s showdown against the Lakers in Staples Center, the Suns face a four games in five days stretch that also includes a home game against Denver and back-to-back roadies in Miami and Orlando. For my money, that’s perhaps the three best teams in the NBA on the road as well as a very solid Denver squad.

The Suns have already won every game they should as well as scoring “upsets” in Utah and Atlanta, and staying around .500 — which I think should be the goal for November — will become even more difficult this week.

At least this time the Suns won’t be playing the Lakers on the second half of a back-to-back as always seems to be the case, but they won’t get a tired Los Angeles squad either, as the Lakers lost their first game of the season Thursday night in Denver in their last game.

The Lakers have started out 6-0 at home and overall have looked largely unbeatable in racking up a positive scoring margin of 10.4 points per game. Three of their six home wins have come by at least 19 points.

Los Angeles has been particularly lethal on the offensive end this season, leading the NBA in offensive efficiency by averaging 112.5 points per 100 possessions. After a bit of a slow start in a department Phoenix typically paces the league in, the Suns trail just the Lakers and the Heat by scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions.

As we saw last May, the Suns can score on the Lakers, just it’s doubtful they will be able to stop a Los Angeles offense that’s clicking as well as ever, especially since they enter this one ahead of only Sacramento and Toronto in defensive efficiency (and we saw how bad the Kings are in this department Friday night).

Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers by averaging 25.2 points per game, but Pau Gasol has perhaps been their best player by putting up spectacular all-around numbers: 22.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 4.4 asp and 1.44 bpg. Gasol leads the Lakers in all those categories but points, and Lamar Odom’s 14.3 and 10.9 line is not too shabby either.

In their first matchup on Oct. 29 in Phoenix, a 114-106 Lakers win, Odom pounded the Suns for 18 points, 17 boards and five assists with Hedo Turkoglu primarily defending him. Perhaps this should be the game Gentry slots Hakim Warrick into the starting lineup for Turkoglu to prevent such an ugly mismatch.

Gentry has said he would like to put Turkoglu in more advantageous situations, which presumably means shifting him away from matchups against a guy like Odom.

“For him to have to guard the Zach Randolphs of the world he will get in foul trouble,” Gentry said. “We want to put him in situations where he doesn’t have to try to pound and grind with those guys. That’s not what his game is. We have to try and see if we can get him in a situation that’s more feasible for him, too.”

The Suns must prevent Gasol and Odom from having a field day on the boards to even have a chance in this one. The Lakers rank third in the NBA by grabbing 32.3 percent of the available offensive boards. The Suns are dead last in the corresponding statistic by corralling just 64.8 percent of the available defensive boards.

That means Phoenix will be relying on a solid game from Robin Lopez, whose 18 points and 14 rebounds in the first meeting marked his only strong game of the season. Improvement on the boards from all their bigs is essential after Lopez, Turkoglu, Frye, and Warrick combined for less rebounds than Nash and Jason Richardson on Friday against the Kings.

“We’re going to have to clean that up,” J-Rich said. “They’re big, they’re long, we know they can outrebound us because we’re undersized. We need to do a better job.”

Typically when the Suns play the Lakers there is talk of it being a “measuring stick game.” It’s hard to say whether are far enough along in their development as a team for this to measure much more than how well the Suns play on Sunday night, but clearly a victory would make quite the statement as the Suns embark on their murderers’ row of a week.

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It will be interesting to see where Nash’s head is at after announcing he will be getting a divorce in a statement on Saturday, a day after his wife gave birth to his first son. Nash turned in one of the better games of his illustrious career Friday against Sacramento with the divorce no doubt weighing on him when he torched the Kings for a 28-14-7 line. Perhaps these family issues are sharpening his focus, or perhaps he will be emotionally drained for this one.

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