Preview: Phoenix Suns (11-9) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (10-10)

Time: 8:30 p.m. MST


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It’s disappointing how the snowballing of negative opinions put down the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers before the season ever began. The two Pacific Division teams clearly needed to be led by misfits, but the thought they’d both be astoundingly terrible — and awful to watch — seemed too certain when considering the other questionable teams in the NBA.

Alas, things haven’t gone that way. In terms of watchability, USA Today’s least-watchable team, the Suns, visit the 24th most-watchable team in Staples Center on Tuesday, and more than pride is on the line. Both teams are in the thick of the Western Conference race.

Like Phoenix, the success in Los Angeles without Kobe Bryant is a testament to the head coach. Mike D’Antoni’s team, unlike last season when he was brought on midseason, is running and gunning. The key now is that its constructed to do so. Oddly enough, the Lakers actually have a better defensive ranking than offensive ranking comparatively in the NBA and, unlike the Suns, are one of the best teams in terms of ball movement.

Jeff Hornacek’s team seemingly catches the Lakers at a good time. Despite the relative success, an out-of-shape Kobe Bryant is trying to get his bearings.

Will Kobe disrupt things enough to give Phoenix an advantage?

In Bryant’s first game back from a torn Achilles, he gave himself an F, looked overweight and struggled by doing too much in a loss on Sunday to the Toronto Raptors. It’s hard to say whether that bodes well for the Suns. On one hand, Bryant won’t suddenly shed the extra weight he packed on while being unable to exercise. On the other, it’s still Kobe ‘Bean’ Bryant. He’s entirely capable of willing his way to a big game here or there to make a statement. It’s hard to expect him to play well consistently for the time being, but a la Channing Frye’s return this season, he could put in a big game every once in a while until he finds his legs.

No matter whether Bryant is successful or not, his presence changes the chemistry between a Los Angeles team that, like Phoenix, was scrapping some games out without Bryant and former Suns point guard Steve Nash. If the ball sticks, it’ll help the Suns defense get stops. But then we get to the other big question.

Should the Suns run?

Hornacek has failed to put a finger on why his team doesn’t want to push the ball when Goran Dragic doesn’t have the ball. The Lakers are third in the NBA in pace and could jump-start the Suns getting into a fast-paced tempo for 48 minutes, yet you’ve got to wonder if Phoenix should willingly get into that type of game. After all, the Suns have been just fine by grinding out wins against Houston and Toronto in the last couple of games.

It’s become clear that playing Eric Bledsoe as the primary ball handler hasn’t helped the tempo, but it is the best way to utilize the dual point guard backcourt at this time. While Dragic is the better point guard, he’s also been helpful off the ball. Vice versa, Bledsoe has looked lost when Dragic is playing the point guard spot. Even if that means Dragic is putting up All-Star-like numbers, it’s better off to have both players locked in than just one.

Does the Lakers bench get cookin’?

Another one of Phoenix’s liabilities has been the bench’s defensive consistency. The Morris twins have improved in their focus, yet there’s no way to make up for Miles Plumlee’s shotblocking or Channing Frye’s savvy. Take out Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker as well, and there are vulnerabilities there.

Against the Lakers, that’s a worry. In their last outing, the Lakers didn’t have a single starter reach double-figures but had enough punch off the bench with five double-digit scorers. Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry crank them up a la Gerald Green, so it’ll be up to the twins to get the paint on lockdown and up to the Suns bench scorers to keep up.

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