The past week in Lakerland has been...eventful, to say the least. However, for as much as has changed for the team since a week ago today, the Lakers will proceed in tonight's contest against the Phoenix Suns in a holding pattern.
Neither Mike D'Antoni, nor ex-Sun Steve Nash, will be making his debut on the sidelines for at least another game, ruining what would be a fitting reunion with the franchise in which they both achieved their greatest success. Instead, the Lakers will wait yet another game--perhaps longer in Nash's case--for their season to finally begin taking shape. Whatever anyone thinks of MD'A, positive or negative, there's no doubt that at this point Los Angeles' title hopes rest squarely on his mustache. Lakers fans everywhere are eager to find out if his "Seven Seconds or Less" (actually 24 Seconds or Less as he pointed out yesterday) will work with the personnel on hand, but more importantly whether or not he can live up to his recent promises of a greater focus on defense. Luckily for the the Lake Show, beating the Phoenix Suns shouldn't require them to be anything close to a finished product.
The Suns are a solid 4-5, but it's a deceiving record; their victories have come at the expense of the Cavaliers, Pistons, Bobcats and Nuggets, who are a combined 15-22. In reality, Phoenix isn't a great team, and the primary reason is quite familiar: they can't guard anyone. Alvin Gentry's squad is near the bottom of the league in nearly every single defensive metric, including average points against, field goal percentage against, three-point percentage against, rebounds against and opponents points per 100 possessions. The team's speed and strength helps keep them average in steals and rebounding, but they've shown almost zero discipline on the defensive end other than that. As much as D'Antoni's been skewered for his defensive efforts, or lack thereof, at least those Suns stopped somebody. This squad has given up 100 points in six of their nine games.
However, the reason PHX has been competitive at all is also a time-honored desert tradition; they score a ton of points. The Suns are laying down 99 points a contest and streaking in with the league's 5th highest pace. Five players are averaging double figures, led by Lakers-killer Goran Dragic, who's settling into a breakout season with a 16/3/7 average. But even on this side of the ball, Gentry's boys aren't quite the Suns of yore. The Suns shoot often and run the floor faster than anyone, but they aren't doing it efficiently in the least. They lead the league in field goal attempts, but doing so shooting only 42% from the field, good for 24th in the NBA. With high-output, low-yield shooters almost everywhere across the court, and the Suns are simply chucking the ball up with reckless abandon.
What do the last two paragraphs mean for the Lakers tonight? Great success. The Suns play an Allen Iverson-like game, except he was able to win because there were other players on the team that were able to temper his high volume, low efficiency shooting with other attributes--six players on the Suns average at least nine shots a game. The Lakers should be able to take advantage of a Phoenix team that gambles an awful lot on the perimeter, and use their newfound knack for ball movement and spacing to their advantage. On the offensive end, the Lakers should be able to do just about whatever they want. Phoenix doesn't defend particularly well at any place on the floor, except for Marcin Gortat's spot in the post, which might be nullified by all the pressure Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol should put on him.
With Steve Blake out with an abdominal injury, Darius Morris will once again be the starter. As evidenced by his excellent defensive work against Tony Parker in the first three quarters of Wednesday's contest against the San Antonio Spurs, the second year man from Michigan is the Laker best equipped to stay in front of Dragic. More to the point, the Suns' porous defense shouldn't be able to take that much advantage of Morris' haphazard ball handling skills.
Phoenix isn't completely without their weapons to attack the Lakers. Dragic is exactly the type of guard that's sliced up LA for years, and the Suns' extremely athletic perimeter wings are deadly. However, if the last two games are any indication, the Lakers are playing with enough determination and energy to keep their opponents playing at their pace. The Suns have averaged 82 shots in their four victories, 73 in their losses. LA needs to strap down and limit Phoenix's shots, and rein in one of the NBA's fastest squads.
In many ways, this is just another tune-up for the Lakers, as new players become more and more comfortable in their roles, and D'Antoni can see what exactly his players' capabilities are. The "real" Lakers season hasn't begun yet, but this should serve as a good test to see how much or how little D'Antoni has made his mark already.