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Lakers vs. Suns Preview and Game Thread: A rematch between playoff foes

The Lakers will be taking on the Suns in their first meaningful matchup since the Suns eliminated the Lakers from the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

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Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers dropped their opening game of the season, losing 121-114 to the Golden State Warriors. The team led for all of the second and third quarters of the game before slowly letting the lead go in the final frame as they were not able to overcome Russell Westbrook’s terrible debut or their defensive miscues. They’ll now look to turn the page on that disappointing game as they welcome the Phoenix Suns into town in search of their first win.

The Suns will also be coming into Friday’s game winless as they also let go of a lead against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. Nikola Jokic and his team won 110-98 in that one after the Suns had as large as a 16-point lead right before halftime.

The Lakers and Suns, obviously, met in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, with the Suns eliminating the Lakers in six games. They prevailed despite the Lakers leading 2-1 early in the series as everything went downhill for the purple-and-gold after Anthony Davis left Game 4 early with a groin injury. He was sidelined save for a brief cameo in the decisive Game 6 where he left only minutes into the first quarter due to the injury.

The Suns have nearly the same roster as last season — although newcomer JaVale McGee will be familiar to us Lakers fans — while the Lakers are on the opposite end of the spectrum with only three players from that first round series returning.

Let’s take a look at what has gone wrong for the brand new Lakers so far as we figure out what could be fixed in this game against the Suns to get something in the win column.

What to do with Russell Westbrook?

The story of the Lakers’ game against the Warriors centered around Russell Westbrook and his poor performance. He was a game-worst -23 in 35 minutes played, shooting 4-of-13 from the field and ending with eight points, five rebounds, four assists, and four turnovers.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It was a game where every Westbrook-related-worry in the offseason reared its ugly head into some monstrous, grueling nightmare. It was timely given Halloween being right around the corner, but untimely for the Lakers and the pursuit of their first win. He even went 0-for-4 from three, something he only did four times last season.

After the game, LeBron James and Anthony Davis had to pick Westbrook up mentally as he was really disgruntled about the debut in front of his hometown fans. However, he seems to be right back to being fun ole’ Russ prior to Friday’s game against the Suns.

“He was himself as a person and on the floor,” Anthony Davis said about Westbrook after Thursday’s practice. “He got some post-ups where he scored, some dribble backdowns where he scored, some dribble pull-ups off glass — his go-to — where he scored. He was talking s--- to everybody and all that. He was his normal self and it was good to see that.”

Despite Westbrook knowing the town of Los Angeles possibly more than any other player on this roster, it’s been a while since he’s been on a team that has the public eye on it as much as the Lakers (this is definitely the case when compared to his time in Oklahoma City).

“He had a day to kind of just reflect, get over it, flush it and then come back to practice and get back to being himself,” Davis continued. “Hopefully, it carries over to tomorrow where he can be Russell Westbrook.”

Davis previously talked about wanting Westbrook to “be himself” following Tuesday’s loss while referencing plays where Westbrook would pass when a perfectly good lay-up or dunk was there. This will (hopefully) be one of his worst games this season as he gets more comfortable with his surrounding teammates, which should result in him having a better understanding of when the time is right to pass or not.

However, in addition to adjustments needing to be made by Westbrook himself, Frank Vogel may need to make some adjustments with the four players he surrounds Russ with. The worst-performing lineup on Tuesday was one featuring Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Westbrook, and Rajon Rondo. The lineup closed out the 1st and 3rd quarters, ending the night with a -13 plus/minus over only 4 minutes played. Although Davis was out there, that’s a very poor defensive lineup that also has some spacing issues given Rondo and Westbrook’s shooting deficiencies.

After Avery Bradley had a positive impact in his surprise 4th quarter appearance, he may get inserted in that type of quarter closing lineup given his point-of-attack defense and overall familiarity with Frank Vogel’s system. Austin Reaves may even get thrown out there after showing some defensive flashes in the preseason (he did not play in Tuesday’s game).

Look out for Anthony Davis

All of that negativity aside, it was great to see Anthony Davis perform so well against the Warriors after his injury-riddled 2020-21 season that ended in — you guessed it — injury. He had 33 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal, only getting outscored in the game by one LeBron James (34 points).

He only played 36 games last year, but his highest-scoring game came against the Suns when he had 42 points. It was a May 9th game, a game you might remember for AD screaming “I’m back!” after scoring the decisive bucket in the Lakers’ 123-110 win. This was exactly two weeks before the Lakers started the first round series against the Suns, as the game gave fans confidence that the team could be able to handle the Suns despite AD and LeBron continuing to ramp up from their season’s injuries.

We all know that didn’t work out, but AD still had a pretty successful series before going down with the groin injury. He came out of the gates slow with only 13 points in Game 1 in a Lakers loss, following that up with 34 points each in Games 2 and 3. He was an overwhelming force to the Suns in those games, notching 21 and 14 free-throw attempts in Games 2 and 3, respectively.

We’ll see if he and LeBron can bridge two dominant performances in a row. If that happens, and Westbrook can get past some possible first-night jitters while contributing to the cause in typical Russ fashion, Lakers may just go into the weekend with their first win.

Notes and Updates:

  • Kendrick Nunn will be OUT for this game. He missed the final games of the preseason due to a right ankle sprain and missed Tuesday’s opener with the same injury. It was revealed after Thursday’s practice that he was diagnosed with a bone bruise in his knee and that he will be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks.
  • Wayne Ellington will also be OUT. He too missed the final games of the preseason and the opener, although his hamstring strain isn’t expected to keep him out for too much longer.
  • The Suns don’t have any injuries to note except Dario Saric who will be out most of (if not all) of this season after tearing his ACL in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

The Lakers and Suns will tip-off at 7:00 p.m. PT on Friday night. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN, but you can also catch it locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.