Preview: Phoenix Suns (35-33) at Los Angeles Lakers (50-20)

Los Angeles Lakers 139, Phoenix Suns 137 3 OT

Suns

Lakers

The Phoenix Suns have gotten back to playing quality basketball with the returns of Steve Nash and Channing Frye, but we will find out tonight whether that return to form has stemmed largely from just playing the Clippers and Warriors after losing four in a row to winning teams.

That test will come in the form of a piping hot Lakers squad that has steamrolled the league to the tune of 12 wins in 13 games since their embarrassing loss in Cleveland. In that time the Lakers have lost just to a Miami team on the road that I hear has a star or two.

The Suns’ schedule the rest of the way will feature more teams like the Lakers than the Clippers, and they’re going to have to steal a couple of them to have a shot at the postseason.

One factor working in their favor is the suspension of Andrew Bynum, who has anchored the Lakers’ defense during their run by exploding for 12.3 points and 14.5 rebounds per game on 62.3 percent shooting in March.

I doubt Alvin Genty will be doing backflips over Bynum’s absence because it will just mean a heavier dose of Suns-killer Lamar Odom. Odom is averaging a 17.3-12.7-4.0 after killing them in the playoffs last year, and to Amare Stoudemire’s surprise there isn’t anything lucky about it.

The Suns’ best shot at pulling off an upset may just be to do what they did last time they faced the Lakers in Staples Center and that is to try to bludgeon them behind the arc. The Suns fell one shy of the NBA record for three-pointers in a game by drilling 22 of them in their 121-116 victory on Nov. 14 to win a game in which they got crushed on the boards 49-32 and allowed 68 points in the paint.

Aaron Brooks could play a factor in the outcome as he’s traditionally been a thorn in the Lakers’ side. This year he averaged 20.0 points and 8.5 dimes over two games while with the Rockets, and he went for 18.0 per game (including performances of 34 and 26 in Houston wins) during the teams’ 2008-09 playoff series.

Brooks is the kind of waterbug point guard who is a real tough matchup for the Lakers’ veteran point guards, so perhaps tonight could be the night for a breakout performance from him.

For more on the matchup, I exchanged e-mails with ESPNLA.com’s Andrew Kamenetzky. My responses can be found on Land O’ Lakers and Kamenetzky shares some knowledge on the Lakers below:

Schwartz: The Lakers suffered so many head-scratching losses earlier in the season that they seemed to be on cruise control until April. What changed for them since the loss in Cleveland that’s led to their run of 12 wins in 13 games?

Kamenetzky: It’s a combination of Andrew Bynum and renewed team-wide dedication. The impact of Bynum since the All-Star break, and especially throughout March, can’t be overstated. In eight games this month, he’s averaging 12.3 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds (5.3 on the offensive glass), and nearly three blocks. Plus, Bynum’s defensive presence is felt beyond the gaudy numbers. He’s altering shots left and right (even well outside the paint) and making the lane considerably less appealing to visit. Mistakes along the perimeter often get erased by virtue of him being on the court.

Sunday’s win over Portland was an excellent reminder of the kid’s value. The Lakers won the game, but were he not suspended (as he will be against Phoenix), victory would have come much easier.

Still, credit doesn’t belong solely to Drew. Ever since that wretched display in Cleveland, the Lakers as a unit have been considerably more focused and purposeful. The All-Star break provided necessary time away from the game, and everyone is hyper-aware of the playoffs approaching. Getting up for the regular season on a consistent basis hasn’t been easy, between the relative boredom of December/January ball compared to postseason action and the physical/mental toll of three straight trips to the Finals. But with the finish line in plain sight, they’re energized and attentive to the details. In particular, they’ve been outstanding defensively, allowing just one opponent 100 points since the break.

Schwartz: Ron Artest seems to have taken a real step backward this season. Is that just a function of the offense or do you seem him starting to decline? How has he handled this diminished role?

Kamenetzky: It’s hard to pin Ron’s struggles on one factor. At times, he’s seemed frustrated by his role on offense. Earlier in the season, he was often planted in a corner to spot up. While this assignment inspired the funniest flow chart in recent memory, it hasn’t necessarily inspired comfort or solid production. Beyond the low percentages, Artest was perpetually indecisive upon migrating from that space. Other times, Artest has been openly unsure of his role on either side of the ball. His early slump coincided with Matt Barnes’ surprisingly strong start, which meant the sub playing fourth quarter minutes typically reserved for Ron as the designated “stopper.” Artest was a good sport and supportive of Barnes, but this development only enhanced his uneasiness.

Plus, I think he perceived (accurately, I might add) fans were making him the chief whipping boy for the lackluster periods, which never feels great. I imagine this played a role in getting upset with Phil Jackson’s proclivity for tweaking him via the media. In Ron’s head, this probably felt like the coach piling on, even if that wasn’t PJ’s intention.

Others (in the media, if nothing else) have wondered if his mental health advocacy, while certainly noble, was causing a distraction. Or if not this endeavor, perhaps another. For example, tweeting about a mix tape dropping immediately following the disaster in Cleveland? Not the best way to come across as a competent multi-tasker.

In any event, the good news is that since the All-Star break, Ron’s been playing very well. His defense has been effective and, at times, downright suffocating. Offensively, he’s still not shooting at a high percentage, but his shot selection has been (generally speaking) better, along with his overall decisiveness. He’s doing more as a playmaker, which is reflected in his 2.6 assists per game in March, the best of his monthly splits. His spirits are visibly higher, which has resulted in some WWE-style antics such as flexing/kissing his biceps after good plays and trash talking Michael Beasley. (He literally chanted “airball” along with the Staples crowd after a whiff from Beas.) PJ wasn’t thrilled about the latter activity, but it’s certainly indicative of a guy having more fun.

Schwartz: With Lamar Odom starting in place of Andrew Bynum in this one, which Lakers reserve most needs to step up?

Kamenetzky: Steve Blake. His inaugural season has been largely anti-climactic, but he’s played better over the last few games. Blake’s always done a nice job keeping the second unit organized, but there’s been a frustrating reluctance to shoot and make himself generally more accountable as an offensive source. However, he’s scored nine points twice in the last four games (which, scarily, is on the decidedly high side), so perhaps the shell is cracking. Given that Aaron Brooks is a defensive liability, I’d love to see Blake attack the newest Sun.

At the very least, he needs to prevent Brooks, who’s hurt the Lakers in the past, from going nuts. Blake did a very nice job recently pestering Jason Terry, and has cranked up his activity on that side of the ball.

Schwartz: Who’s going to win?

Kamenetzky: The train, she keeps on rolling. Lakers 108, Suns 99.

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Tags: Andrew Bynum. Aaron Brooks Lamar Odom

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