Lakers hope to gain ground on standings against Suns

The Lakers are 2.5 games behind the Phoenix Suns for the 8th spot in the West.

After splitting their first two games after NBA All-Star Weekend, the Lakers are playing their third game in four days. They will have a Sunday matinee in the Arizona desert as they play against the Phoenix Suns. No, they’re not literally playing in the desert itself; that would be kind of foolish.

That means another match-up between two of the living legends in the game in LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Assuming LeBron plays that is as he is questionable coming into Sunday afternoon. However, the Suns won’t have Bradley Beal for the fourth straight game as he deals with his hamstring.

The Lakers and Suns have played each other four times so it’s unusual in this NBA age that they’re going against each other a fifth time. Their first match-up took place in the second game of the season on Oct. 26 when the Lakers came back from 12 down in the fourth to defeat Phoenix, 100-95. Their second game was on Nov. 10th, when they played their opening game for the In-Season Tournament. Cam Reddish made a clutch three to help the Lakers get an exciting 122-119 victory. They met each other next in the quarterfinals of said tournament on Dec. 5th. Lakers pulled out another three-point win, 106-103, which included a controversial timeout granted to L.A. Kevin Durant would miss a game-tying three and the Lakers came away with their third W over Phoenix.

Their fourth match-up took place on Jan. 11th and it was not great for the Lakers. Both stars for L.A. had off games while Bradley Beal (37 points) and Devin Booker (31 points) went off for the Suns. It was a 127-108 win for Phoenix.

The Lakers (31-27) are 2.5 games behind the Suns (33-24). The Suns don’t particularly stand out this season on either end of the floor but you can throw all of that out when Phoenix has guys like Durant, Booker, and Beal. Beal has been in and out of the line-up this season and, as mentioned, he won’t be available this Sunday. However, they would be something to watch out for come play-in and playoff time, depending on where they land in April.

So let’s talk about what the Suns can do this Sunday. Durant (28.1 points per game) and Booker (27.6) are explosive scorers. But you can’t ignore the playmaking both guys do (Booker averages 6.9 assists per while Durant is at 5.6). We also can’t forget that the Suns have shooters in Grayson Allen (.485 from three and he leads the league in three-point percentage far and away) and Eric Gordon (.389). They also have high-level defensive wings in Josh Okogie and Royce O’Neale (picked up during the trade deadline) and bruisers in Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks.

What the Suns do badly this season is take care of the ball. They average the fourth most turnovers per game (14.8) so if the Lakers can find that swarming defense somewhere in them (like they did in New York), they can make life very difficult against Phoenix.

Anthony Davis is also listed as questionable but he did get extra rest against San Antonio as he surprisingly did not play in the fourth quarter. While his defense in the trenches will play huge against Phoenix, it’s their perimeter defense that is really concerning. On Friday, the Spurs shot just under .400 (15/38, which is .395) and they were the worst three-point shooting team going into that game. They can’t let the Suns fire away from three. Phoenix is 50 for 132 (.379) from three in those four games against the Lakers (and 41 for 101, .406, in the last three games). As always, it’s something to watch for.

LeBron looked spry on Friday so the Lakers are hoping he’ll be that on Sunday again. D’Angelo Russell bounced back with a 22-point game against the Spurs while Austin Reaves looks to do better from his five turnovers in that same game. We’d also like to see Rui Hachimura continue being aggressive. And Jaxson Hayes has been playing much better over the last few weeks; his energy is much needed for this Laker team that looks fried at times.

Every game is big for the Lakers but this one feels more significant due to their closeness in the standings. And if the Lakers really want to be considered a title contender, they’re going to have to beat a team that is considered one even if their record doesn’t indicate, otherwise.

The Lakers will have to set the table early so they can set the Suns later.