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Game Preview: Stumbling Suns host winless LeBrakers

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LeBron James is getting an awakening to the rigors of the Western Conference night in and night out.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

What: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix

TV: FoxSports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


On Wednesday night, the Lakers play their first game of the season NOT on national television when they take on the Phoenix Suns in the desert.

Within three games together, the LeBrakers have already experienced three close losses to the Trail Blazers, Rockets and Spurs. Along the way, they’ve gotten two starters suspended for fighting and are deflecting LeBron hate earlier than even the loudest skeptics thought would happen.

But hey, it’s Hollywood right?

Meanwhile, the Suns started with an exciting bang, only to watch that excitement die a fiery death in a pair of road losses to playoff caliber teams.

Now what?

Will the Suns show their home fans once more that they’ve REALLY improved over last season? Or will they show the same lack of discipline and energy that marked the last few years in the valley?

Will the Lakers use the paltry Suns as a springboard to their 2018-19 arrival like the Warriors and Nuggets did, with a blowout? Or will LeBron and company fail to get up for the non-national game, one night before a back to back at home against the 4-0 Nuggets.

Probable starting lineups

Lakers

As a team, the Lakers have shown some troubling signs that could have been (were) predicted when they finalized their roster this summer around LeBron James.

  • 29th in the league in three-point shooting (29 percent)
  • 25th in defense in a historically bad defensive start league-wide, giving up 128, 124 and 143 points in their first three games (the Suns are 20th this year despite giving up MORE points per 100 possessions so far than last year’s last place finish)

In Wednesday’s game, the Lakers will be without Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram, who were suspended for fighting the Rockets. In their place will be last year’s lovable rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. On Monday against the Spurs, Kuzma led the team with 37 points, along with 8 rebounds and 3 assists, while Ball had 14, 6 and 6. They still have the rapidly developing Josh Hart and mercurial Lance Stephenson coming off the bench, along with Super Cool Beaz.

LeBron’s first three games as a Laker, where he’s already dealing with being called overrated and non-clutch? How about 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. And he made a game-tying three to even SEND the Spurs game into overtime. Yeah. Non-clutch. He missed a pair of free throws late in overtime that would have tied the game.

Suns

One week in, and the season is already a violent rollercoaster (well, let’s HOPE its a rollercoaster because that means there’s some ups to come).

Considering the opponents’ record THIS season as well as location (road vs. home), the Suns have actually played the second-toughest schedule in the league this first week according to Kevin Pelton of ESPN.

Still, the Suns are 1-2 with a 21-point victory over Dallas in game one before their 28 and 20 point losses on the road.

Deandre Ayton is only the fourth player in NBA history with at least two of his first three NBA games posting at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists.

The other three with such arrivals are your reigning Rookie of the Year (Ben Simmons) and a pair of Hall of Fame players (Oscar Robertson and Bill Walton). Shouts to Kris Hanson on twitter for pointing this one out!

You could argue that some of Ayton’s assists are cheap (screen hand-offs) and maybe shouldn’t count as much as a beautiful bounce pass between two defenders... but that’s a failed argument. The league has been counting assists the same way since the days of Robertson (the pass immediately preceding the made shot, as long as fewer than three dribbles were taken by the scoring player), so if it were so easy then the All-Time list would be a bit longer, right?

Sure, Ayton has a long way to go in a LOT of areas on the court but let’s not nitpick the bean counters on assists unless we do that with all NBA players of all time.

Overall, Ayton is posting 14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4 assists per game and leads all rookies in the Efficiency stat on NBA.com/stats. He needs to slam home more thunderdunks (need more windmill action!) and block more shots (just 0.3 per game), and he’s definitely got to stop ball watching so much on defense and losing his man. Oh, and actively block someone out once in a while.

T.J. Warren has been a revelation off the bench with his newfound scoring abilities from three. He’s the first Suns player since current broadcaster Eddie Johnson to score 60 off the bench in a season’s first three games. He’s playing 10 fewer minutes a game so far this season, but is averaging career highs in points, assists, steals and blocks, but the most jaw-dropping stat is that he’s averaging 4.7 three point attempts per game in only 23 minutes and making 57% of them. The 57% won’t hold of course, but that three point attempt rate is beautiful.

T.J. needs to up his rebounding from 2.7 per game as does everyone else — the Suns are 25th in rebounds per game so far — but otherwise has been everything the Suns could have hoped for.

Devin Booker is the key to the game for the Suns, as the second best player (to LeBron) who will take the court for either team. Booker is averaging an eye-popping 29.3 points (51% FG( and 6.7 assists per game this season, but will need to play a bit better defense and commit fewer turnovers (league-leading 18 in 3 games) for the Suns to win more than their 27% mark over the last three years.

Key Matchup

Devin Booker’s offense vs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s defense is good, and Deandre Ayton vs. JaVale McGee will be fun, but there’s one matchup I can’t wait to see.

Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges are good friends from Villanova (Hart graduated a year earlier than Mikal) and have been jawing back and forth on social media about who would dominate who when they finally face off in the NBA.

Both come off the bench for their teams, and if Bridges plays with energy and focus like he did in the last two games, they might just get their wish to play opposite each other for a bit.

Hart is a year older and much more established already, but I still look forward to seeing them fight for points/steals when the game counts.

Prediction

Suns fans watching on TV — including those season ticket holders who sold their tickets to a random online person — will see more yellow than purple or orange, and the Suns players will take notice. When LeBron — or ANY Laker — scores, the arena will be rocking. When Booker or Ayton score is when you’ll see how few Suns fans are actually at the game.

The question is what the Suns will do about it. Will they treat it like a road game (oof) or will they bust ass to win over the crowd?

What the heck. I’ll call a Suns win because it’s really fun to imagine LeBron sulking around in another loss.