The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a stunning loss against the Phoenix Suns on January 30, and the team will seek vengeance now that the battle has shifted to the Staples Center. Los Angeles defeated Phoenix there on November 16, and Round 3 of this battle is an opportunity for the team to get back on track and continue its quest for a late-season playoff run.
Phoenix ranks last in the Western Conference, so that should not be too difficult.
However, the Lakers are not exactly playing with a full deck. Seven-footer and low-post threat Pau Gasol will miss this game with a foot injury, and the team could be at the mercy of Dwight Howard's inconsistent play in Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun system.
Phoenix also likes to run, which means the Lakers attack should be simple: Use the experience card. The Suns may have talent, but they are still a young squad searching for both a leader and an identity in the post-Steve Nash era.
Los Angeles needs to take advantage of that from the get-go, and that could mean a blowout victory in the City of Angels.
Time: Tuesday, February 12th, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, Fox Sports Arizona HD
Records: Phoenix Suns (17-35) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (24-28)
Betting Line: Phoenix (+9), Lakers (-9), via Bovada
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, out), Channing Frye (heart surgery, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Lakers Seek Vengeance Win Following Stunning Upset
When the Lakers last faced the Suns on January 30, the team was on a three-game winning streak and working well together under a new approach. Rather than relying on star guard Kobe Bryant solely as a scorer, Los Angeles opted to use the five-time champion as a playmaker as well.
Moreover, seeing as how the team had defeated Phoenix 114-102 on November 16 thanks to 31 points from Bryant, a win seemed guaranteed.
But that wasn't the case. Phoenix came out ready to play defense and forced 19 Lakers turnovers, six of which were committed by Bryant.
The Black Mamba led Los Angeles with 17 points and nine assists, and the Lakers shot just 30 percent from long range on the night and a mere 63 percent from the free-throw line.
Phoenix, on the other hand, was led by a stunning performance from Michael Beasley. In the midst of a disappointing season, the former Kansas State Wildcat contributed 27 points off the bench.
Long story short, the Lakers need to forget about this loss and enter this game with a new attitude. They need to be committed to both each other and the common goal of making the playoffs and must stop at nothing to achieve it.
That may be tougher now that Gasol is out for the next several weeks, but backing down is not an option. Los Angeles needs to run the table in this game, and handily, lest they want to be on the outside looking in come the end of the regular season.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Marcin Gortat
Marcin Gortat has been a solid presence at center for the Suns since being traded to them from the Orlando Magic in 2010, able to be a force both in the paint and on the perimeter. Gortat can also play strong defense when called upon, essential in Phoenix's offense-oriented system, albeit a more balanced one now that Lindsey Hunter is at the helm.
This season, Gortat has posted 11.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, but he has one notable flaw. Against elite centers, he tends to struggle mightily.
That's going to be a problem against Dwight Howard, a seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. The man may be struggling to adapt to D'Antoni's system, but he can still play great defense when called upon.
Given Gortat's inexperience, plus the fact that the two were teammates in Orlando for three-plus seasons, Howard has quite the upper hand.
But again, that all depends on which Howard shows up tonight. He's averaging 16.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game but has not exactly been consistent in his first season in Los Angeles.
He'll be absolutely great one night but a near non-factor another. This can be attributed to him struggling to adjust to being a center in a pick-and-roll heavy offense and not spending as much time in the low post like he is used to.
Tonight, Howard needs to do all he can to be great. Gortat is not a strong defender against experienced big men, and Howard must take full advantage of that.
This means finding a way to work the low post, not to mention get past his struggles in the paint. This is not something he can turn on like a faucet, but the man has to at least try.
The Lakers' success against Phoenix could hinge on him outperforming Gortat, and he must fight past his bad shoulder and do all he can to show just why he is one of the best centers in the league despite his struggles.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
One of the Lakers' problems all season long has been confidence. Rather than trying to work together as a team, everyone seems content to let Kobe Bryant go into Mamba Mode from the get-go and make Los Angeles' attack predictable.
Seeing as how the team has one of the greatest playmakers in NBA history in Steve Nash on its roster, this is a huge problem. Granted, his leg injury early in the season didn't help the Lakers' chances, but he alone is capable of making the team better.
Nash has proved that he can still play at a high level, even though he did just turn 39. He is averaging 12.1 points and 7.4 assists per game while shooting an astounding 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from downtown.
He has also proved capable of working in tandem with Kobe Bryant as a distributor, though Nash has acted like more of a 2-guard in that instance. Against Phoenix, he needs to be in full combo-guard mode.
This means working to create his own shot off the dribble while also finding opportunities for his teammates. If someone is standing all by themselves, he must get them the ball and trust them to make the shot.
If Nash finds himself with the ball in wide-open territory, he too must take the shot. The Lakers play in an offensive system where the point guard is king, and Nash must show that he can fill that type of role.
This means not being afraid to reach deep down inside and have a solid performance against his old team. He may not be a spring chicken anymore, but he still has enough gas left in the tank to make a difference, and that could mean a win or a loss against Phoenix tonight.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Jared Dudley
SF: P.J. Tucker
PF: Luis Scola
C: Marcin Gortat
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
The Suns beat the Lakers on January 30, but fans of the team would be foolish to think that such an upset can happen again. This game will take place at the Staples Center, where the rowdy and passionate crowd will be cheering the Lakers on from start to finish.
In this case, a blowout victory will be all but a certainty for Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant will have a fine scoring night while also reaching double-digits in assists, and his defense will be off the charts as well.
Dwight Howard will have a double-double as he shows the first signs of continued improvement in D'Antoni's system. On the defensive side, he will frustrate Gortat into throwing up forced shot after forced shot, making Phoenix's interior game a non-factor.
Michael Beasley and Goran Dragic will do all they can to keep the Suns in the game, but it won't do the team any good. Steve Nash will hit too many key shots and dish out way too many clutch passes for the Lakers, who will pull away late in the third quarter and absolutely dominate in the final frame.
It's the Lakers' game to lose, and they will stop at nothing to ensure that this match ends with them moving up in the win column.
Los Angeles Lakers 110, Phoenix Suns 93