The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t exactly had a progressive stretch of basketball since the All-Star break, even though Los Angeles has been experimenting more so with the young core. Head coach Luke Walton has been displeased with the recent effort on the court, calling his team soft in the midst of their eight-game losing streak.
Walton’s squad gathered their belongings and flew out to the Talking Stick Resort Arena for their Thursday matchup against the Phoenix Suns. The clash between two of the bottom three teams in the league not only permits a battle between two young teams, but also has potential implications on the race to the lottery. Thursday’s clash is the final meeting this season between the two teams, with the Suns holding a 2-1 season series lead.
The 19-45 Lakers enter Thursday two games behind the 21-43 Suns in the Western Conference standings. While both teams represent the bottom two in the West, the Brooklyn Nets have a clear lead for the No. 1 pick (which they will surrender to the Boston Celtics). The clashes between these two teams often result in up-tempo, high scoring contests, as was evident earlier this season.
Earl Watson’s Suns squad has also followed in the footsteps of Walton in the sense that the organization is playing towards next season. Starting center and NBA champion Tyson Chandler has been placed into a bench role, so that big men like Alan Williams and Alex Len can get some crucial experience.
Len has been solid since becoming a starter, providing a big body, good rim protection and solid rebounding, but Williams has been great off the bench. The Arizona native has secured a double-double in five of his last seven contests. The Lakers should be familiar with Marquese Chriss, who torched the Lakers on route to their 137-101 blowout on Feb. 15. Chriss continually caught alley-oops from his teammates, on route to 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
T.J. Warren is another young draft pick continuing to show promise on the court, as the 2014 14th overall pick is providing 13.4 points, 4.3 rebound and a steal and assist per game. Jared Dudley and Derrick Jones Jr. are the other frontcourt players coming off the bench will Dudley providing a veteran voice and shooting, while Jones is one of the best athletes in the NBA.
Forward Julius Randle is fresh off his third triple-double off the season, albeit in a blowout loss against the Dallas Mavericks. Randle faces another premiere matchup, with a physicality advantage over the power forwards of the Suns. While the third-year player has an ability to get to the basket, his development hinges on finding a balance between dishing the ball and avoiding the double teams.
With the Lakers well out of playoff contention, Walton has elected to give Brandon Ingram all the experience on the court. Both Ingram and Randle played the entire first quarter against the Mavs, in an effort to build chemistry that Walton states is lacking on this team.
Center Tarik Black will be undersized against the legit seven-footer in Len, but that has never stopped him in the past. Black has shown strong stretches of defensive play, but only when he can stay out of foul trouble. The key going into Thursday’s contest will be helping Black off pick-and-roll situations, as the Suns continually put Black in bad positions and capitalized on many lobs with virtually no help side defense.
After suffering from respective injuries, it seems as though Larry Nance Jr. (wrist) and Ivica Zubac (quad) are set to see significant minutes. Nance Jr. struggled against the Mavericks, perhaps due to the injury and the restraints it had on his hustle play. While the 19-year-old Zubac still exudes a young look, his attention to his footwork and ability to block on the help side are key assets to build upon.
The Suns boast one the most electric backcourts in the NBA, with a plethora of guards that can execute at the NBA level. Eric Bledsoe is the most prolific and all-around player of the group, with a triple-double during their blowout victory.
On the other hand, Devin Booker is evolving into a deadly three-point threat, meaning whoever is guarding him has to constantly stay a step within his path on the court. While he isn’t afraid of physicality and driving to the basket, his shot is his bread and butter. He currently averages 20.8 points per game, shooting 43 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range.
The Suns have been experimenting with different lineups with their youth and have suddenly found production from rookie point guard Tyler Ulis. The Kentucky alumnus didn’t receive many opportunities earlier this season, but has flourished in his recent stints of playing time.
D’Angelo Russell is attempting to shake of a recent cold shooting stretch from beyond the arc, as the Lakers badly need his shooting. The offense seems to flow smoother when Russell can get going early, as it sets up many assist opportunities throughout the contest.
Shooting guard Nick Young has slowly turned into the Lakers only consistent three-point threat, especially after the departure of Lou Williams. Young is able to constantly space the floor for the Lakers starting lineup, a player that can’t be left alone on the wing (career-high 40.7 three-point percentage).
Jordan Clarkson leads the bench charge and has seen an increase in scoring since the All-Star break. He had perhaps the most productive game of any Laker against the Mavericks, collecting 22 points and two assists. As the catalyst of the bench unit, Walton always expects a change of pace when he inserts his subs. Their defensive effort and full-court pressure was promising, as the starters watched their constant effort from the bench on Tuesday.
Three Keys To Victory
Play 48 Minutes:
Walton calling his team soft didn’t exactly come as a surprise, as the results spoke for themselves. The Lakers need to demonstrate they are playing for one another on the court, whether on offense or defense. Constant communication is required in order to grow on the defensive end.
Many times this year the Lakers have played well in two or three quarters, but one terrible quarter has done them in. They must give full effort for the entire game.
Don’t Let The Offense Dictate Defense:
The Lakers-Suns contests eventually turn into track meets of late, as the pace immediately changes to an up-tempo scoring fest. The Lakers should never fall asleep on a made basket and need to run back after every possession to set up their defense. The Suns will continue attacking even if down by 20, so the Lakers need to balance their energy throughout the contest.
Shoot With Confidence:
The Lakers can often be seen passing up semi-open shots, resulting in late shot-clock executions and forced up shots. The young core needs to remain confident with their shot selection, as the entire team will feed off their contributions and rising confidence.
Los Angeles Lakers (19-45) Vs. Phoenix Suns (21-43)
7:30 P.M. PST, March 9, 2017
Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, Arizona
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Suns Starting Lineup:
PG: Eric Bledsoe
SG: Devin Booker
SF: T.J. Warren
PF: Marquese Chriss
C: Alex Len
Key Reserves: Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr., Leandro Barbosa
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Nick Young
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Julius Randle
C: Tarik Black
Key Reserves: Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Corey Brewer