The Los Angeles Lakers are approaching their biggest test of the season at an unfortunate time, heading for the clash with the Phoenix Suns while dealing with a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
L.A. received good news early in the day of the NBA blockbuster. Talen Horton-Tucker and Dwight Howard have tested out of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will face the Suns on Tuesday — only two days after Los Angeles took on the Chicago Bulls with just nine players cleared to make an appearance.
But they will still have to cope without Avery Bradley, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves, Kent Bazemore, Kendrick Nunn and Anthony Davis. Only the last two have been ruled out with non-coronavirus-related health issues.
Impressively, no Sun will miss the game due to COVID-19. However, knee injuries will prevent Frank Kaminsky, Abdel Nader and Dario Saric from playing in the game.
Chris Paul’s arrival in Phoenix helped the Suns establish themselves as an NBA powerhouse last season. The team has only proved that status this year, going into the night as the Western Conference’s leaders with a league-best 24-5 record.
They own the fifth-best offense and third-best defense, boasting the highest field goal percentage (47.8%), fourth-best efficiency from the 3-point land (36.8%) as well as the fourth-highest average in assists (26.3 per game), and the fifth-best in steals (8.6).
Devin Booker has only built on his All-Star performance from the previous two seasons, registering a career-best 3-point percentage (40.9%) while scoring 22.9 points per game in 2021-22. Meanwhile, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are continuing their fine form after both enjoyed their breakout seasons in the previous campaign.
The above stats and facts mean LeBron James will again have his hands full, orchestrating the L.A.’s offense and defense in the first game back at Staples Center since Dec. 12. James did his best to carry the understaffed Lakers in the clash against the Bulls with 31 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks on the night.
He did receive plenty of help from Carmelo Anthony — shooting 5-for-12 from deep off the bench to finish the night with 21 points — and Russell Westbrook — who nearly got another triple-double under his belt with 20 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists.
Isaiah Thomas wrapped up the Lakers-in-double-digits list, chipping in 13 points in his first start of the season.
But still, considering the circumstances, the James-Westbrook duo will need at least as much — if not more — support from their teammates if they want to surprise the Suns.
Howard could immediately jump into the Lakers’ starting lineup as even David Fizdale gave up on the starting five with DeAndre Jordan in it when he took charge of L.A. on Sunday. So could Horton-Tucker, replacing Thomas among the starters to boost the Lakers’ vulnerable defense against the Booker-Paul-Ayton triumvirate.
After finally making his season debut in the loss to the Bulls, Trevor Ariza said the Lakers will deal with all the adversity by playing with even more determination when on the court.
Perhaps that could be their most dangerous weapon on Tuesday night besides having James lead the way.
Because now more than ever, they will be the underdogs when they face the Suns — but as they have experienced this season, the underdog status can sometimes be particularly empowering in the NBA.
Lakers (16-15) vs. Suns (24-5)
7:00 p.m. PT, Dec. 19, 2021
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: TNT, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Talen Horton-Tucker
SF: Wayne Ellington
PF: LeBron James
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, Jay Huff, Rajon Rondo, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan
Projected Suns Starting Lineup:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Devin Booker
SF: Mikal Bridges
PF: Jae Crowder
C: Deandre Ayton
Key Reserves: Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Cameron Johnson, JaVale McGee, Elfrid Payton
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