The Los Angeles Lakers have won three in a row and finally appear to have gotten the formula right under head coach Mike D'Antoni. They'll face another test tonight in playing the team that made D'Antoni a household name, the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix has lost its identity ever since D'Antoni's departure in 2008, and the losses of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire to free agency just contributed further to that. Though the fast-paced offense lived on through former coach Alvin Gentry, the team's wheels fell off this season, and badly.
The Suns have gone 15-30 this season and are tied for last place in the Western Conference. Los Angeles has also struggled, but is still playing better basketball than their younger opponents.
Tonight is just another chance for the team to showcase its new approach of sharing the ball and putting in a collective effort. The Lakers have already defeated the Suns once this season, on November 16, and will use their new confidence to seek their fourth consecutive win and send Phoenix to its third straight loss.
It may be tough to do that, especially against a team as young as Phoenix, but experience is on Los Angeles' side. By pooling all of it together, Kobe Bryant and his teammates can turn this game into a blowout, and fast.
Time: Wednesday, January 30th, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, Fox Sports Arizona HD
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (20-25) vs. Phoenix Suns (15-30)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, January 30, 8:33 a.m. EST
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Channing Frye (heart, out), Jermaine O'Neal (heart, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Continue Rolling Against Suns?
Now that everyone appears to have bought into Mike D'Antoni's system, the Lakers find themselves on the verge of a four-game winning streak. Fortunately, they have an advantage in having defeated the Suns already this season.
That happened back on November 16, just a few days after D'Antoni was hired as Mike Brown's replacement. Bernie Bickerstaff may have been coaching the game, as D'Antoni was recovering from knee surgery, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Los Angeles performed fairly well.
The Lakers pulled off a 114-102 victory thanks to 31 points from Kobe Bryant and 22 from Metta World Peace. On the Suns' end, Goran Dragic led with 22 points and seven assists.
But that was at the Staples Center, where the Lakers have gone 15-10 on the season. This battle is set to go down at the US Airways Center, and Los Angeles has been notoriously weak on the road. Their mark away from home is a mere 5-15.
Granted, Phoenix has not exactly been dominant anywhere this season. They are 4-19 on the road, but just 11-11 at home.
This game is completely up for grabs as a result, and could result in a remarkably close outcome. Thus, the question presents itself: who will win?
Will it be the new and balanced Los Angeles Lakers, or the young and feisty Phoenix Suns?
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Marcin Gortat
One of the stars of the Lakers' winning streak has been Dwight Howard, who has been vocal in his frustrations this season. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has posted 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, but his scoring has taken a hit. He has averaged just 16.7 points, below his career mark of 18.3.
During the Lakers' streak, however, Howard has been a new man. He has averaged just 16.3 points, but also nine rebounds and two blocks. Instead of trying to be the alpha dog, he has accepted his role as the man in the middle whose job is to play defense first.
Howard's defense is going to be vitally important against Phoenix's Marcin Gortat, who was Howard's teammate in Orlando for three-plus seasons. Both men are 6'11", but Howard outweighs Gortat by 25 pounds, at 265.
Like Howard, Gortat can be a beastly presence on the inside. He has averaged just 11.5 points and 8.9 rebounds this season, plus 1.8 blocks, but has good size and can be a force in the paint when called upon.
Gortat is also different from Howard in that he has a jump shot that he can use when open, whereas Howard prefers to stay in the paint from start to finish.
However, unlike Howard, Gortat is not what one would exactly call a weak defender. Despite his size, he tends to get owned by elite centers. When the Suns and Lakers first faced off this season, Howard had 18 points and 12 rebounds compared to Gortat's six and eight.
Gortat simply needs to have a better game for Round 2. That's easier said than done, what with Phoenix ranking 26th in rebounding, but he has to at least try. This means working the low post and not being afraid to draw a foul, and taking more than just over two free-throw attempts per game.
Most important of all, it means not getting intimidated by an elite center in Howard.
X-Factor: Earl Clark
Clark is averaging just 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but has been solid for the Lakers since becoming their starter at the 4 this month. In January, the former Louisville Cardinal has posted 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds, and has also shot an impressive 50 percent from the field.
The man has been even better over his last five games, through which he has averaged 12.2 points, 7.8 boards and shot 54.5 percent from long range.
Clark may not seem like an X-factor for this game, but his ability to stretch the floor and also work the inside makes him more important than one may think. He has good size at 6'10", 225 pounds, and is slowly learning how to balance his mid-range game with his work in the interior.
Against Phoenix, Clark must be the definition of balance. The Suns like to run, and he needs to keep up so as to get back on defense when needed. On offense, he cannot be afraid to use his jump shot, nor stand and bang under the basket.
Don't get me wrong. Clark does not have to be great for this game by any means. All that he really needs to be is good enough to defeat Phoenix's Luis Scola, who has proven that he can be a fine low post presence as well as one with a solid jumper.
Seeing as how teammate Kobe Bryant has gone into full playmaker mode during the Lakers' winning streak, Clark should be just fine. If he can take advantage of the Suns' weak defense just as he did that of the New Orleans Hornets on January 29, then the Lakers' chances of winning will greatly increase.
The Lakers' winning streak currently sits at three games. By the final buzzer tonight, it will have reached four.
The team will continue to play unselfish basketball and their overall confidence will reign supreme over a young Suns squad looking to crawl its way out of the Nash-Amar'e era and into the next chapter. As a result, Kobe Bryant will have another excellent game. He may not have a great scoring night like we've grown used to expecting from him, but his assists will be through the roof once again.
Dwight Howard will take Marcin Gortat to school in the paint, registering a double-double, and Pau Gasol will have another solid performance off the bench. Metta World Peace will sink key three-pointers, and Earl Clark will have another performance that forces rival GMs to take a long look at him.
On Phoenix's end, not much will be able to get done to stop the Lakers. Luis Scola will go toe-to-toe with Clark, but his inability to hit certain key shots will damn the Suns. Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley will sink jumpers that give the team some temporary momentum, but it's not going to be enough.
Los Angeles will thus come away with a road win, taking another step towards being the championship-caliber squad GM Mitch Kupchak thought he was getting in landing both Howard and Steve Nash.
Los Angeles Lakers 108, Phoenix Suns 97