Time: 8:30 MST
Behind door number one is a team deep in the heart of a rebuilding process, more so by circumstance at this point than by choice. With that process has come an increasing number of defeats, coaching changes, veterans seeing their minutes reduced and nights where the ball simply doesn’t go in the basket. A collection of draft picks lie behind this door, but so too does a path to obscurity.
Behind door number two is a team more interested in making headlines lately than headway in the Western Conference standings. The team is filled with future Hall of Famers and veteran role players but due to personality issues and a coach ill-suited to handle the personnel, a place in the NBA lottery seems more likely than a deep run into June.
Once upon a time, both doors led straight to the top of the Pacific Division, yet Tuesday night as the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns tangle for the third time in 2012-13, they will do so both knowing full well how far they’ve fallen.
While center Martin Gortat said after Phoenix’s embarrassing 97-69 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday that the team hasn’t played how anyone thought they would, the Suns’ slide to the bottom of the conference is not all that surprising. Phoenix lacks star power, leadership and most all an identity. Blame that on however you’d like — be it summer departures, the front office, the coaching staff or the players themselves — but the reality is the Suns are further away from a trip back to the postseason than they’ve been in the last 20 years.
The story of the Lakers’ season comes to one thing: expectations. Mitch Kupchak and Co. certainly won the offseason and the battle of who could build the best paper roster — as many predicted Los Angeles to challenge the Miami Heat for a title — but Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, in spite of their All-Star pedigree, have proven to be oil and water on and off the court.
Bryant being the competitor that he is, still has his sights on a championship this season. Howard, who has battled back from offseason back surgery and a torn labrum in his right shoulder, has his eyes set on another season, the one to be played next year.
While the five-time NBA champion said this week that the recent conflict between the two was manufactured by the media, one thing is for sure when it comes to the Lakers: there’s no manufacturing chemistry.
The Lakers return to Tinseltown fresh off a 4-3 Grammys road trip, yet still find themselves 3.5 games behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot out West. It’s a situation that former Suns guard and two-time MVP Steve Nash couldn’t have imagined when he asked to be dealt to Los Angeles last July, but nonetheless it’s the 39-year-old’s reality these days.
New storylines between these two divisional foes are not plentiful heading into Tuesday night’s contest, because the goals of both are vastly different at this point in the year. The Suns have lost two straight games by a combined 59 points, and Nash has already made his return to the Valley, in what turned out to be arguably Phoenix’s most enjoyable victory of the campaign.
For the Suns, Tuesday represents a chance for Lindsey Hunter’s squad to simply “move on” from what was a terrible stretch of basketball over the weekend. For the Lakers, Tuesday represents one final chance to get back on track before the All-Star break.
Keys for a Phoenix victory…
- Let World Peace exist. Whatever you’d like to refer to him as these days is fine, but one thing is for sure Metta World Peace doesn’t shoot as well as Ron Artest used to in his heyday with the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings. Granted the 13-year veteran has only shot over 40 percent once (2009-10) in a Lakers uniform, but this year he has been especially off target, shooting 39.7 percent on nearly four more shots per game. Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have wing shooters like he did in Phoenix with James Jones or Quentin Richardson, so Artest has been forced to take on that role. And boy has he struggled. The Suns’ best bet Tuesday is to get the ball out of Kobe’s hands, because more than likely it’ll find World Peace.
- Don’t be afraid to use fouls. Whether it’s Marcin Gortat, Jermaine O’Neal or Markieff Morris, the Suns big men should welcome the opportunity to get physical with Dwight Howard in the post. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is fragile at the moment, having just aggravated his labrum injury during the last meeting between the two teams on January 30. Howard isn’t nearly the consistent player he’s been in years past when health wasn’t a concern, however one element of his game has carried over from his days in Orlando. Superman’s kryptonite still lies at the charity stripe, where he is shooting an abysmal 49.5 percent.
- Play for the picks. Okay, this isn’t really a key so much as a point of emphasis. With the Lakers currently out of the playoff picture, the Suns hold two lottery picks (their own and one acquired in the Steve Nash deal). If Los Angeles were to take over the No. 8 spot in the conference, Phoenix would instead take Miami’s late first-round pick. So if beating an old teammate and a rival isn’t big enough motivation, taking it to the Lakers and their hopes of adding a piece through the draft should serve as extra incentive.