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Back-to-Back Preview: Lakers vs. Suns & Nuggets

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Whew! Three days off is too damn long, but if you haven't yet looked ahead on the schedule, then I have good news for you. Not only do the Lakers play tonight, but they play tomorrow night, as well! It's been a slow start to the week, but you'll get your Lakers fix to end it.

For the Lakers, however, this presents a pretty stiff challenge. Not only do they begin a back-to-back tonight, but their opponents in said mini-gauntlet are the (other) two best teams in the West. Phoenix is 8-1 and the only team to have beaten Boston; Denver, meanwhile, won it's first five games before stumbling twice in a row, to two very good teams, and are now 6-3. The Lakers are 6-1, and haven't gotten there without some struggles on their own.

After the jump, a full preview of both games.

Before we jump into these two matchups, however, I want to point out a couple of funny quirks in the current NBA schedule and standings. As far as the schedule goes, this week is a bizarre mix of very good matchups on overlapping back-to-back games.

The Suns and Cavaliers both played yesterday, and both in compelling matchups — the Cavs in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Magic, and the Suns against a non-threatening Hornets team, but one that, nonetheless, does still boast Chris Paul at the point. Today, those two teams play again, and again the matchups are compelling: the Cavs play the 6-1 Heat, and the Suns play our Lakers.

In tonight's game, it's almost as if the Suns pass the back-to-back baton to the Lakers, who go on to play the 6-3 Nuggets tomorrow night, yet another compelling matchup between two of the best teams in the West. That's three straight days of some pretty great basketball.

Also, check out the standings. The Celtics and Suns lead their respective conferences at 8-1. Then, in each conference you've got three teams sitting around 6-1 to 6-3, and in both conferences, this group includes last year's conference champion (Miami, Atlanta, and Orlando in the East, and LA, Denver, and Portland in the West). Finally, in both conference, the fourth through eighth seeds are rounded out by teams at around the 5-3 or 4-4 mark (Milwaukee's 4-2 looks a lot like 5-3, since they've just played fewer games than anyone else), and in each conference, this group includes a supposed championship contender (Cavs in the East, Spurs in the West). Yeah, I know it's early, but I can't recall the last time the two conferences appeared so symmetrical. Okay, enough of that, let's get into the games.

 

The Lakers Coming In

6-1, 2nd in West, 105.6 ORtg, 98.9 DRtg, 95.0 Pace

 

Safe to say that things are looking a little better for the Lakers these days. Their season opener against the always deplorable Clippers was less impressive than it should have been, and the bludgeoning they suffered at the hands of the Mavericks in the very next game was inexcusable.

Overtime wins in Oklahoma City and Houston were much closer than they should have been against teams of significantly inferior talent level, but good games nonetheless. First, it wasn't entirely unimpressive for the Lakers to win two overtime games back to back, both of them away. Yes, both games were close because the Lakers didn't play up to par and failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities to put the game away. Nonetheless, they were good experiences for the Lakers, who now have some confidence in their ability to win close games in difficult situations. Although it's far too early to call, they may have also learned a bit of humility along the way, too.

It's my opinion that most of the Lakers' early struggles have been the result of championship hangover. They were playing like a team with an entitlement mentality, as though they thought wins were guaranteed because they were the NBA Champions and the best team in the league. With one big loss and three closer-than-they-should-have-been wins under their collective belt, maybe, just maybe, this team is realizing that they need to come out and play hard, or the other team is going to steal that win. Their last two games, blowout wins over Memphis and New Orleans, might show some of that; on the other hand, they came against two terrible teams.

So far, Ron Artest has been a huge asset, as Forum Blue & Gold explains. If early indications mean anything (no, not much), the Lakers' gamble at the SF position seems to be a smashing success. For the details, just jump over to FB&G's post.

Pau Gasol is still "day-to-Christmas" and will not be playing in either of these games, so we're not going to go there. Andrew Bynum is back, and there's always potential for post-injury rust, but it was a minor injury and he only missed a couple games, so there's pretty good reason to expect him to return without missing a beat.

Statistically, the Lakers have the 12th best offense and the tenth best defense in the league. Since our last double header, both ratings have improved:  ORtg has increased from 102.3 to 105.6 and DRtg has decreased (a good thing) from 101.9 to 98.9. They're excellent offensive rebounders (2nd), and terrible defensive rebounders (29th). Overall, however, the Lakers have been looking better recently than they did to start the season, and with Kobe dominating and Bynum already back, there's a lot to feel good about.

 

Thursday: Phoenix Suns

8-1, 1st in West, 112.5 ORtg, 106.3 DRtg, 99.6 Pace

 

I'll be honest with you: I'm really not quite sure how to evaluate these Suns. Are they just good, or is it possible that, out of nowhere, they are a legitimately great team? Could they be championship contenders? Frankly, it's too soon to say, and I haven't seen enough of them. Free time is a limited commodity in the Tucker household, and most of it belongs to the Lakers; what's left is distributed between the other contenders, and going into the season, the Suns did not fit into that category.

Here's what we know. By the admission of their own bloggers, the Suns suck at the latter half of back-to-backs. This comes as no surprise, since their starters are likely only a few moments longer for this world than the Celtics. On the other hand, their victory over the Hornets last night was such a thorough one that only two Suns logged 30+ minutes, and none more than 34. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire, and Jason Richardson all tallied in the mid- to low-twenties in minutes, with Nash in particular playing only 23 (though he still managed double digit assists). So how will the Suns do in this particular "to-back"? Hard to say, really.

The good news, either way, is that the Lakers have had plenty of rest. This means not only that they should come in fresh and with plenty of energy in store, but also that Andrew Bynum has had the time he needed to heal from his injury. He will suit up for tonight's game, and appears to be just fine. Phil Jackson said that he tweaked the elbow several times in practice (by which he means that it absorbed contact of some form), and it didn't give him any problems, so there's no reason to think that he's coming back sooner than he should.

A couple things stand out about Phoenix. First, they have returned in large degree to their old ways. Their not as fast as the their counterparts from earlier in this decade, but they are fast (99.6 possessions per game, 3rd overall). They spread the floor, let Steve Nash go to work, run the pick-and-roll, and shoot the three ball like it's going out of style. That last point, in particular, is a particularly disturbing one. To date, the Suns have made 47.4% of their three-pointers, and they're taking them at a rate of 23.9 per game. The Lakers, meanwhile, tend to be pretty weak in covering the long bomb, to the great dismay of many commenters here at SS&R. If the Lakers don't wise up and respect the Suns' distance game, this could be a recipe for disaster.

All of which brings me to Channing Frye, the Suns center. Well, sort of. That's where he suits up, at least, but that's not really where he plays. Frye is averaging 11 shots per game this year, but only 9% of his shots are shots "at the rim" (i.e., low post), and only 12% of his total shots come from within 10 feet. On the other hand, he is averaging 6.3 three-point attempts per game ... and hitting at a clip of 44.4%. This could be a challenge for Bynum, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Phil Jackson put Odom on Frye so that Bynum can cover Stoudamire. This will mean some pretty high expectations for Bynum to be better defensively than he has been of late, as Amare is shooting 57.3% from the field and averaging 19.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

On the other hand, Grant Hill and Jason Richardson should have a hard time guarding Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest, and against the Suns' smaller lineup, Bynum should be able to play the part of low post bully pretty effectively (assuming his injury hasn't thrown off his timing). In fact, the Lakers should be able to impose their will in the post, overall, and that's a Good Thing. On the other hand, the Lakers' small ball has looked pretty damn good these last couple games, with both Gasol and Bynum out, so if Bynum needs a game or two to get back into the swing of things, the Lakers could go small and let Kobe go to work in the post.

The thing to know about these Suns is that they're deeper than they were before, and while still not exactly a good defensive team, they're not as dismally bad as they have been in the past (20th overall). Most importantly, their offense is not to be underestimated; at this point, it is a well-oiled, high-powered machine. Not only is their Offensive Rating of 112.5 points per 100 possessions (or 1.125 points per possession) good for 2nd best in the league, but they are the only team yet to hang 100 points on the stingy Celtics — and also the only team to beat them. Underestimate the Suns offense at your own peril.

Tonight, if the Lakers have any sense, the focus for the game should be on defense. This Lakers team has the personnel and the ability to be incredibly good on the defensive end of the court ... when they so choose. Tonight, they must choose to do so. Against an okay-but-not-great Suns defense, their offense will come, and if they play great D, it will only make scoring that much easier. The key to beating this Suns team is on defense, and specifically — as it always has been — the plan is always the same old, easier said than done task of containing Steve Nash. Make him a scorer. He'll score well — he's shooting 54.3% from the field and 50% from three — but a one -man show is always better than letting the entire team get involved offensively the way this team is capable of.

Before tonight's game, head over and check out a very honest and realistic preview by our sister blog, Bright Side Of The Sun. As they point out, "If the Suns beat the Lakers tonight it will feel really good, I'll give you that, but it will not mean that we are better than them. Not yet." Their thoughts on the game are quite good, very down to earth, and will give you an even better sense of what to expect from the Suns tonight.

 

Friday: Denver Nuggets

6-3, 3rd in West, 108.5 ORtg, 104.5 DRtg, 98.5 Pace

 

Let's stick with the honesty theme, shall we? You know this Nuggets team. They haven't really made any changes since we met last May, and we've seen them 10 times in the last year. We're better than they are, but they can certainly beat us, blah blah, enough said.

Okay, we'll say a little more. They jumped out to a tremendous start this year, also winning their first five games, though the competition was middling at best. Carmelo Anthony has been an MVP candidate from minute one, and before we all realized what the Suns were up to, the Nuggets looked like they would be hard to beat in the battle for Second in the West. They have since lost to good opponents in Miami and Atlanta, and while those losses were somewhat justifiable, the severity of those losses was not. They come in tomorrow having just lost again last night, only this time, it was to the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite what you might think, the Bucks are 4-2 and currently 5th in the East, so it's not as bad as it sounds, but even so, a Nuggets team that fancies itself best in the West and thinks it has as good a chance as anyone at beating the Lakers should be beating the Bucks.

To me, the key to beating the Nuggets is, and has been for several years now, their role players. By that, I mean everyone but Carmelo and Chauncey Billups. Only Golden State suits up a more combustible group of players. Thanks to guys like Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chris "I Refuse to Use his Stupid Nickname" Andersen, the Nuggets roster is essentially the anti-Spurs:  a volatile, unstable bunch of classless thugs. (Note to Denver fans: Please don't take it personally; I like Chauncey and Melo a lot, and wish the (2nd) best for them, but part of that means you guys need to dump guys like Kenyon Martin, whose constant CRAP undermines all the good basketball work your team does.) Too often when faced with adversity (as playing against the future or defending champions can be), this team talks itself out of the game, and falls apart at the seams. Fortunately for the Lakers, this is an achilles heel they can attack.

Expect, as always, a fair amount of trash talk. This has always been true, but expect it even more now, since (a) this is a Western Conference Finals re-match, and (b) the Lakers have added Ron Artest to the mix. Trash talk favors the Lakers, who, with Kobe at the helm, play well and rise to the occasion in a talkative game atmosphere; the Nuggets need to learn to keep their mouths shut for their own good. Don't be too worried if you see Ron Artest getting into it a little with Nuggets players. A little bit of that is good, and trust Kobe and Lamar Odom to keep things from going too far.

In basketball terms, the thing to know about the Nuggets is that they get to the line better than any other team in basketball. This has been true for several years now, and it didn't change with the departure of Allen "Little Baby" Iverson. (Man, I am in a trash talking mood myself! Must be these Nuggets...)  They attempt 33.7 free throws per game (as compared to 23.0 for the Lakers), but more importantly, they earn 0.42 free throws per field goal attempt. That means they shoot one free throw for every 2.4 shots they take, and they are first in the NBA in that statistical category. By contrast, the Lakers attempt 23.0 free throws per game, and 0.271 free throws per field goal attempt. That means they shoot one free throw for every 3.7 shots they take, and that puts them at 24th in the league in that category.

Once again, they face a pretty potent offense, ringing in at 6th in the NBA so far. However, Odom and Walton have had success guarding Melo in the past, and Ron Artest exists just for opponents like this. While Artest has shined in virtually every other area, including a whole handfully that nobody but nobody foresaw, this will really be the first time we get to see him take the big (both figuratively and literally) assignments that should earn him his paycheck. Everything else he does is gravy for us (and apparently, we're going to need more mashed potatoes, because he's dishing out a lot of gravy); he's here to s hut down guys like Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James. Expect him to be dialed in defensively for this game, and if I were a betting man, I'd be putting my money on Ron Ron in that matchup.

Defensively, we also match up pretty well with Billups. He's a big, strong point guard, but then, so is Derek Fisher. Billups is no Steve Nash or Aaron Brooks, and those are the guys that Fish really struggles with. We played Billups pretty well in the WCF, and while he hasn't been any kind of defensive ace for a long time, Fisher's defense this year could be worse.

Offensively, the Nuggets are low-middle of the pack, and the Lakers shouldn't have a problem scoring on them. As usual, they have no answer for Kobe, and if Kobe continues to go often to the post and be so very efficient in his post game, then Denver's defense will be in trouble. Lamar Odom and Kenyon Martin have already built up some tension, going at each other in the preseason, which should make it that much easier for the Lakers to get under their skin. Gasol did well against Denver in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see if an Andrew Bynum that has been scoring quite well can step into that void at the center position. If he plays even a modicum of defense on the other end, he should get the advantage over Nene, who can score a bit but is no offensive juggernaut.

This game is in Denver, which means that after tonight's game, the Lakers pack up and get on a plane, and then play tomorrow. Back-to-back games are hard enough when you're at home, and having to travel won't be fun for the Lakers. That said, they've already done it and won once this year, and having Bynum back will give the Lakers at least a little bit of breathing room. This will be a test for them, but 96 hours of rest leading up to tonight's Phoenix matchup should have them as prepared as they can be sans Pau.

Once again — and get used to this, because it should basically be the mantra against the top teams — the easiest way for the Lakers to beat this Nuggets team is by playing defense. Good defense, but more importantly, good clean defense. Keep them off of the charity stripe, and they'll struggle. More importantly, keep them off of the charity stripe, and they'll quickly start whining and complaining. And for a team so prone to self-destruction, that's exactly what we want.

We'll update this post with a link to our sister blog Denver Stiffs' preview, when they put one up.