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Suns-Lakers preview: LeBron, AD next to face Phoenix buzzsaw

The Lakers and Suns are back to fighting for playoff position! Isn’t this fun?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What: Los Angeles Lakers (7-2) at Phoenix Suns (6-3)

When: Tuesday, November 12 at 7:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix Arizona

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


BIG GAME

Don’t let the Lakers fans take over Talking Stick Resort Arena like they usually do with their yellow jerseys all over the arena. And don’t let them cheer louder for the Lakers than Suns fans cheer for the Suns.

This is PHOENIX! Make it your town. Your crowd.

History

Suns versus Lakers is a storied series loaded with league MVPs facing off against each other, most recently with Steve Nash vs. Kobe Bryant in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. But since then the Lakers and Suns have fallen on (mostly) hard times.

The Suns were so-so from 2011-2015, but putrid since. They haven’t sniffed a playoff berth since 2010 heartbreaker to the Lakers. Nine seasons and counting.

The Lakers were good through 2013, but have been awful since. Their playoff-less streak currently sits at five seasons and counting.

Both teams hope to break their droughts this year, so each of the four games against each other matters a ton.

The last time the Suns had a winning record entering any game against the Lakers was November 16, 2015. Four years ago. The Suns were 5-4 and the Lakers were 2-9.

The last time the Suns and Lakers both had winning records when they faced each other was... well, a lot longer ago. The date was April 7, 2012. The Suns came in with a 28-27 record limping toward the end of the 66-game strike shortened season and the end of Steve Nash’s career in Phoenix. The Lakers came in with a 34-22 record on their way to another deep playoff attempt.

The Suns leading scorers in that 2012 win over the playoff-bound Lakers? Shannon Brown (24 points) and Michael Redd (23). Yes you read that right. Shannon Brown and Michael Redd. Marcin Gortat had 14 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks, going up mostly against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Steve Nash had 13 points and 11 assists.

That was seven years and 28 meetings ago. Finally, both the Suns (6-3) and Lakers (7-2) have winning records again as they face off in Phoenix tonight.

Probable Starting Lineups

Matchups

The Lakers are weirdly shaped, which makes them an interesting matchup for any team. They have an excellent defense but not a very good offense.

When the Suns are on offense: I’m guessing that Danny Green will spend the opening minutes shadowing Devin Booker. Green is (or at least was once) an excellent defender. Avery Bradley, also an excellent defender, likely takes Rubio. That leaves LeBron on Oubre, who might spend a lot of energy trying to cut back door from the three-point corner behind a ball watching LeBron. Baynes and Dario Saric will hang out on the three-point line to pull AD and McGee away from the interior, though I guess the Lakers will roll the dice on one or both of the Suns big men to miss their threes. This will be a tough night for the Suns, though they already met and figured out how to score on some really good defenses in Philly, Utah and the Clippers — moreso against the smaller Philly (no Embiid) and Clips than against Gobert’s Jazz.

When the Suns are on defense: The 6’9” 260 pound LeBron James clearly plays the point guard in the Lakers lineup, while 7-footer Anthony Davis plays power forward. None of the Suns is built to defend either of them. It will be interesting to see who guards LeBron in the Suns starting lineup. Maybe Oubre? Probably Oubre. Devin Booker can take Bradley while Ricky Rubio takes Green. or vice versa. Neither player is dynamic in the half court. That leaves Saric trying to defend Davis with Baynes probably attempting a lot of charges in help defense as AD blows by Saric. That could be a nightmare for the Suns without Deandre Ayton’s athleticism, and only Frank Kaminsky in the big man rotation as a backup. We will probably see some time from all bigger wings on AD, including Oubre, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. The Suns best bets will be to be okay with LeBron and AD combining for 60 points as long as they hold the rest of the team to 40 or less combined.

Key Stats

Lakers update

Anthony Davis is nursing a sore shoulder that is more chronic than acute, meaning he toughs it out every game. That hasn’t kept him out of any games this year, and he’s still probable for the Suns matchup tonight.

Rajon Rondo has a calf strain, and former Sun Troy Daniels tweaked a knee. Both are questionable for the Suns game.

The Lakers are all about LeBron and AD, of course. They each have a usage rate 30.7% or higher (shot attempt or turnover per possession they touch the ball) and score more than half the Lakers points.

Their third leading scorer is Avery Bradley at 10.3 points per game. That is, until Kyle Kuzma finds his footing after returning from pre-season injury five games ago. Others are higher on “Kuz” than I am, but he’s a good player that can be seen as a third best player on a playoff team I guess. So far this season, though, he’s been pretty bad outside of a quarter here and there. He is posting career lows across the board, and that’s not even because he’s playing fewer minutes (21 per game). He’s at Frank the Clank levels on three pointers (20%) and doesn’t provide much else yet.

Still, Kuzma is bound for a break through game so you can bet there’s a non-zero chance it happens in Phoenix.

Former Suns on the Lakers are their 11th and 12th men in the rotation. Troy Daniels is getting more minutes (15 per game, all 9 games) than Jared Dudley (6 per game, only 6 of 9 games so far).

Suns update

On Sunday, coach Monty Williams did admit that, for now, he is mostly going to shorten his rotation to 9 players, which squeezes out backup point guard Jevon Carter. After a hot start, Carter had considerably cooled off, and the Suns played very poorly when he was at the helm without Booker or Rubio in there with him.

In Sunday’s game, Carter did not play until garbage time. The Suns had Booker or Rubio on the floor for all but a scant couple minutes at the end of the first and third quarters. And it was Tyler Johnson at point guard for those couple minutes when the other two rested, with Kelly Oubre Jr. out there with him along with Dario Saric. The flow right now is Booker staying on the floor very late into the first and third quarters, while Rubio starts the second and fourth quarters. It’s possible we’ve seen the end of the five-man bench lineups.

It seems Monty is starting to employ his ‘core four’ tenet of keeping two of his most reliable four players on the court at all times. So far, that’s Rubio, Booker and Oubre. Who is the fourth? We don’t know yet. Aron Baynes is clearly among the top four best players on the team right now but his frequent foul trouble makes it impossible to pre-plan a rotation around him for the middle two quarters. You get what you get. Deandre Ayton might be that guy one day, but he’s still got a five weeks before coming off suspension.

Prediction

The Suns best bet might just be to expect 60 points from the AD and LeBron combined, and to spend a lot of their efforts making sure no one else has a big night. It will take 100 points to win the game, so it can’t just be the two stars. Hold down the rest and see what happens.

The Lakers have won three out of four matchups each of the last two seasons, and now the Lakers have LeBron AND Anthony Davis. If the Suns truly want to be in the playoff picture, they will have to at least split the season series against the Lake Show or win the series outright.

That starts tonight.

I predict a Suns victory, of course. Suns win 110-102.