PHOENIX — It’s hard not to put much stock in tonight’s game between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. But for the Suns, it’s simply another game — an opportunity to bridge an iffy start into a winning streak.
“I don’t think it means anything other than a chance to get over .500,” Phoenix point guard Steve Nash said. “I don’t think it’s any different than playing anybody else. If we stay over .500, we can stay in the playoff hunt.”
Despite the departure of head coach Phil Jackson, the more stable inhabitants of Staples Center return most of the core from a championship team of two years ago. Kobe Bryant has started off the season on a tear after undergoing a supposedly revolutionary knee surgery over the summer. The Black Mamba is averaging a disgusting 28 points, six points and six rebounds per game.
“I’d rather have Phil there and not Kobe,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said. “They’re still a great team. Mike Brown is a great coach, been to the finals. They still have Bynum and Gasol and Kobe, and you know, (Metta) World Peace. They’ve still got pretty much the core of a championship team.”
Bryant is still backed up by Pau Gasol, and it appears that center Andrew Bynum has taken over the No. 2 role on the Lakers by averaging 19 points and 16 rebounds a night.
For Phoenix, the 8:30 p.m. game in Staples will allude to how much and how well Gentry can make his team into a chameleon of sorts. He’s said that the rotations won’t be consistent from game-to-game, and who the Suns are matching up against could determine which players see floor time.
The duo of Gasol and Bynum will force Gentry to give Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez heavy minutes. If Phoenix hopes to beat the best rebounding team in the league, Lopez will need to play like he did in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, and Gortat will need to keep up his solid play after getting the brace off of his broken thumb. They could even play at the same time, though Channing Frye finding his jumper against Milwaukee (16 points and 4-for-4 shooting from three-point range) might keep Phoenix in its usual lineups.
But the biggest development for Phoenix could be how the Elston Turner-concocted defense will operate behind Grant Hill in defending Bryant.
“I think we’re spending more time than we had in the past (on defense),” Nash said, “but I think we’re more detail-oriented in knowing exactly what’s expected of us.”
Because of Bryant, the Suns don’t expect the Lakers to be any less of a team than they were under Jackson. Even though Nash and crew simply want a victory, it will be a telling game of where Phoenix is and how far it may have to go.
“It’ll be a little bit of a different system,” said Gentry, who downplayed the Lakers’ more traditional offense. “They’re a team that’s going to be really hungry, you know, being swept by Dallas (last year in the playoffs) probably left a bad taste in their mouth.
“At the end of the day though, Kobe’s going to have the ball.”
Brown returns to Lakerland
Suns guard Shannon Brown will return to Los Angeles for the first time, and it’ll likely be a trip down memory lane for the former Laker.
After struggling to find a fit with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats, Brown cemented himself as an NBA player with the Lakers.
“Being able to learn from the best coaches in the game, being able to learn and become close friends with one of the best to do it in the basketball game, I learned a lot,” Brown said. “I’m very appreciative of how it all happened, because when I got there that’s the first time I started to consistently get minutes.”
Of course, there’s always that risk that Laker fans could feel spurned by Brown leaving the organization. Is there a risk of being booed?
“If I’m gauging off of Twitter, I’m going to get a lot of boos,” Brown said. “But if I’m not gauging off of Twitter, I think for the most part, you know, I had great years there.”