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Lakers vs. Suns Preview: Two teams looking to get right

Both the Lakers and Suns badly need a victory to make up for their struggles of late, setting up an interesting matchup on Thursday.

In-Season Tournament - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers will look to make it three wins in a row against a Phoenix Suns team that has also been struggling as of late. The teams will face each other for the fourth time this season on Thursday and the first time since the In-Season Tournament (IST) quarterfinals.

Start time and TV schedule

Who: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns

When: 7:30 p.m. PT, Jan. 11

Where: Arena

Watch: TNT

There’s no team that the Lakers will face more this season than the Suns. Thanks to the IST, these two teams have already gone head-to-head thrice this season with two more to go, including Thursday’s heavyweight battle. The Lakers have won all three games so far and it’s been a treat to watch.

What wasn’t a treat to watch, though, was how the purple and gold performed in the month of December, particularly after winning the inaugural IST title. The same can be said about the Suns, who have struggled to stay healthy and have lost eight out of their last 15 games. Both these teams, who had high hopes of contending for a championship this season, have trended downwards as of late and badly need this win.

For the Lakers, there’s hope that they’ve finally escaped the dry spell they found themselves in the last three weeks as they’re currently on a two-game winning streak, their longest since nabbing the IST title in Las Vegas.

As I reiterated in my last preview, the focus now for Los Angeles is to string together as many wins as possible to make up for the losses they’ve endured recently. It’s going to be tough to do it against a Suns team that wants to pretty much do the same thing, but here’s how the Lakers can win on Thursday:

Can the role players continue to step up?

For the Lakers this season, it’s pretty much just been Anthony Davis — who has emerged as the team’s biggest star this year — and 39-year-old LeBron James who have consistently shown up. That’s obviously expected of them because, after all, they’re max contract superstars who are tasked to carry the team to victory every night. But making Davis and James’ lives easier is what role players are supposed to do and, for the second straight game, they did exactly that.

Davis’ 41 points spearheaded the scoring load in the win against the Raptors but he and James also got some help from Cam Reddish, who shot 4-6 of his three-point attempts. D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves and Taurean Prince also left their imprint in the game after scoring 11 points each.

Then there’s Max Christie and Christian Wood, whose minutes and performance have trended up as of late. Wood, who put up 14 points in 24 minutes on 5-10 shooting from the field, has been a much-needed spark plug for the Lakers as of late. The Lakers’ backup center has provided scoring, rebounding and just that energy they’ve needed to get out of this slump.

As for Christie, who closed the game for L.A. last Tuesday, he added six points and had an integral rebound in the clutch that helped swing the game in the Lakers’ favor. The fact that the sophomore is closing games now in December is something to look out for moving forward.

This trend of the Lakers’ role players stepping up needs to continue against a top-heavy, offensively-laden Suns team that will most likely have their big three available for the first time against the purple and gold.

Watch out for the fourth quarter

The last three games between the Lakers and Suns have all been nail-biters as they’ve all been determined in the clutch. The Lakers’ clutch offense, per NBA Stats, ranks seventh in the league and is an advantage they have against the Suns, who are ranked 27th in the league in this department. That’s just one of the perks of having James on your team, who has the fourth most points (237) in fourth quarters this season.

Given how the Lakers have played all year, it’s most likely that this game will go down the wire again and it’s up to L.A. to expose the Suns’ late-game struggles. Who knows? Maybe the Lakers can get Frank Vogel to do a wild rant similar to what Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic did over the free throw disparity after Tuesday’s game.

Jokes aside, winning this one against the Suns will go a long way for the Lakers who badly need to go on a winning streak.

Notes and Updates:

  • Ironically while the Lakers were struggling in December, the Suns (19-18) passed them in the ninth spot of the Western Conference Standings. With a win on Thursday, L.A. can overtake Phoenix once again and it also helps that the former has the tie-breaker over the latter for the season.
  • As for the injury report, the Lakers list Anthony Davis (left ankle sprain/bone bruise) as probable while LeBron James (left peroneal tendinopathy) and Cam Reddish (facial laceration) are questionable. Meanwhile, Rui Hachimura (left calf strain) is still noted as doubtful and as expected, Gabe Vincent (left knee surgery) is out.
  • For the Suns, only Damion Lee (knee) is listed as out.

You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani

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