Preview: Lakers (47-18) at Suns (40-25)


Lakers 102, Suns 96

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Just naming Friday’s opponent makes the blood of Phoenix fans boil.

This time a battle with the defending champs will double as a litmus test type of game in which the Suns can compare themselves with the best in the West after running off 14 wins in 18 games against many tough teams but no upper upper crust squads like the Lakers.

It’s unfortunate that Phoenix won’t be at full strength for this one with Channing Frye set to serve his one-game suspension, especially considering Los Angeles’ strength up front with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar “there is lots and lots in just one box” Odom. Not that Frye is the kind of defender who can check that caliber of player, but at least he’s a long guy who can make them work on the other end.

It will be IMPERATIVE for Robin Lopez to stay out of foul trouble. Simply put the Suns need him, and badly. They won’t win without a great effort from him defensively and on the boards. It’s just too bad he can’t guard all three of those guys at the same time.

Lou Amundson is sure to play a more important role than usual tonight, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jarron Collins dusted off for a couple of minutes if the Suns need help inside.

The Suns will also still be without Leandro Barbosa, who has not played since Jan. 22 because of a cyst in his right wrist that he had surgically removed. The Suns had targeted this game for his comeback, but he told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that his comeback has been postponed.

“No, I’m going to wait. I don’t know how many games. I’m not strong yet with the (right) hand. It’s still a little bit weak. I can’t pass the way I want to pass. Hopefully I’ll be back soon. I’m excited and wanted to play, but I want to make sure I get back right.”

The Suns need Barbosa to be right for the stretch run. They’ve been just fine without him, so not rushing things is the way to go, especially with Goran Dragic expected back for this one. Still, it’s hard to say how effective/healthy Dragic will be coming back from his injury, and even with all this rest we know Nash won’t be 100 percent.

Still, I expect the Suns to come out refreshed from having five consecutive days without a game and two full days off in this stretch. Plus, it’s the Lakers, so you won’t have to worry about the Suns not bringing the energy tonight.

On the LA side, the Lakers had lost three in a row for the first time since acquiring Gasol in February 2008 before beating Toronto on Tuesday on another Kobe buzzer beater. The shots the guy hits in those situations are just insane. It doesn’t matter who’s guarding him and who’s trying to double, he still makes them. The Suns know their best strategy in such a situation is having a big enough lead that Kobe can’t win it by himself at the end.

“We know exactly what they’re going to do. If the game is close at the end, I’m betting that Kobe’s going to be the guy taking the shot,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “Kobe’s a competitor. It doesn’t matter who he’s out there playing against.”

You can’t draw conclusions from one game, especially with the Lakers struggling a touch and the Suns banged up/suspended. But any game against the Lakers means just a little bit more, and a victory would go a long way toward making this homestand a successful one.

The end of The Streak

I know this is a Phoenix Suns blog, not an Arizona Wildcat blog, but give me one second to reflect on The Streak that spanned the days of Steve Kerr to the days of Channing Frye and beyond.

It’s been a slow and steady fall since Frye graduated, four minutes away from the program’s fifth Final Four of the Streak era. What followed were four years of being a step above mediocre and finally this season when they weren’t anything if not mediocre. All the turmoil surrounding Lute Olson’s exit and the succession into the new era robbed Arizona of too much talent to be a factor this season, even in maybe the worst Pac-10 season ever.

I’m still often reminded of a time during the 2006-07 season when I asked Mustafa Shakur if Arizona is still an elite program after a 28-point beatdown at home to North Carolina, a question seemingly answered by the game itself that he took offense to with all the cameras in Tucson pointing at his face.

Slowly and surely starting with that game the Wildcats suffered many “firsts” in 20-plus years. First three-game Pac-10 losing streak, worst loss in McKale Center, first none 20-win season and eventually multiple losses to ASU in a row (the horrors!). But we always had The Streak, even if sneaking in as a No. 9 seed year after year wasn’t exactly elite.

Now The Streak is over, just as the Sean Miller era begins and Lute Olson era officially ends after the graduation of Nic Wise, just two measly years shy of tying North Carolina’s all-time mark.

So many different things have happened in basketball over the last 25 years, but the one thing we could always count on was Arizona in the Tournament. It just won’t feel the same to have March Madness without the Cats.

US Airways Center in depth provides a comprehensive review of the home of the Suns in this writeup, discussing everything from its neighborhood to its atmosphere.

Tyler Lockman contributed to this report.