Preview: Los Angeles Lakers (36-32) at Phoenix Suns (22-45)

Phoenix Suns 99, Los Angeles Lakers 76 

Lakers

Suns

The last time Steve Nash played in a Suns’ uniform at US Airways Center, the crowd chanted “We Want Steve.” Tonight, that same crowd might be chanting “We Want Draft Pick.”

A win against the Lakers is always a big deal in Phoenix, especially in a season like this one where there’s little cheering to be done. But tonight’s game carries more that just the usual significance. Every Lakers’ loss gets the Suns one step closer to Los Angeles’ first round pick in this summer’s draft. Getting that pick may seem like a long shot right now as the Lakers are streaking and the clubs around them in the standings (Utah, Houston, Golden State) are in free fall. But at this point in the year, the Suns are scrounging to for things to play for, and that pick is as good as any.

The Lakers will likely face the Suns without Kobe Bryant. Kobe is still dealing with the ankle injury he sustained in the final seconds of the Lakers’ loss to Atlanta last week. He apparently is sick with the flu as well. All that said, no one would be surprised if Kobe’s hatred for the Suns propelled him back to health in time for tip off.

The Lakers are also without Pau Gasol who is still a week or two away from returning from his injury. While these absences might sound like good news for the Suns’ chances of winning, they may not matter all that much. Last night, the Lakers beat the Kings handily without Kobe or Gasol. It was the first time Los Angeles had won without either player in the lineup since Pau arrived in 2008. The Lakers played just seven guys (Nash, Howard, World Peace, Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark, Steve Blake) and won 113-102. Steve Nash had a double-double, Dwight Howard had 17 rebounds, and Antawn Jamison led all scorers with 27 points.

Now the Kings are a not a great team by any stretch of the imagination, although they did best the Suns recently. But for the Lakers to handle them so easily without two of their best players is impressive and at the same time worrisome for Phoenix’s hopes of a much needed victory.

Overall, the Lakers and Suns have matching streaks trending in opposite directions. The Lakers have won six of their last seven games. The sole loss was to Atlanta on a very controversial no-call. The Suns have lost six out of their last seven, including being manhandled by the lowly Washington Wizards on Saturday night.

In their last three losses, the Suns have given up 36 threes and allowed their opponents to shoot better than 55% from beyond the arc. 3-point defense has been a major weak spot for the Suns all season, but this stretch may be the worst of the year. At the same time, the Lakers have found their stroke from outside, and are using Dwight Howard the way Stan Van Gundy used to in Orlando.

By surrounding Howard with shooters, he has tons of room to operate in the paint. If the defense collapses down on him, he’s free to kick it out to a wide-open shooter. LA hit 12-of-28 against Sacramento. If the Lakers catch fire from downtown in the first half tonight, this game could be over in a hurry.

The Suns have some serious obstacles to overcome defensively. No Marcin Gortat means the job of guarding Howard will fall to Hamed Haddadi and Jermaine O’Neal. That’s not quite as bad as platooning the Collins’ twins against Dwight, but it’s close. Though Gortat has never played that well against his former teammate, the Suns could use his six fouls at the very least. It’s doubtful Lindsey Hunter will resort to intentionally fouling Howard the way Magic Coach Jacque Vaughn did in Howard’s return to Orlando as the Suns simply don’t have the bodies for that.

On the perimeter, how open the Lakers’ shooters are will be directly related to how much help whoever is defending Howard needs. The more help defenders sink toward the paint, the more space Jamison, Nash, and Meeks will have to fire from deep.

The other serious defensive conundrum will be defending Howard and Nash in the pick and roll. Neither O’Neal or Haddadi is overly mobile, and if the Lakers get either of them in space, it will lead to some very easy buckets.

Offensively, Goran Dragic is the key for the Suns. Nash has no hope of staying in front of him, thus anytime Nash is on him, Dragic has to attack and look for his shot. If the Lakers move Jodie Meeks onto Goran, that means Nash or Steve Blake is mismatched onto one of Phoenix’s wings. That is a matchup the Suns must exploit. With Dwight Howard patrolling the paint, points will be tough to come by outside, but perimeter size and quickness is something the Suns can use to their advantage.

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