For several weeks now, Steve Nash has been reiterating to the media that the Lakers (36-32) just need time together on the floor to develop that team chemistry to turn the season around. So far, he's right.
Since the All-Star break, the Lakers have won 11 of their last 14 games. And if you're counting since their team meeting in Memphis back in January, they're a cool 18-7.
But if there's a better proof to their improvement as a team, they have not lost a game since losing Kobe Bryant to a severe ankle sprain. The Lakers will look to continue that streak tonight against the Phoenix Suns (22-45) on the road.
It isn't just Nash and Dwight Howard stepping up their game to compensate for Bryant's injury. In fact, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake have been the pleasant surprise for the team.
In the last 2 games, Metta is averaging 20.5 points (on 64% from the floor and 43% from distance), 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks per game. Blake is getting 17 points (on 61% shooting from the floor and on a blistering 64.3% clip from behind the arc), 7.5 assists, 2 steals and just 2 turnovers a game.
Led by Blake, the bench has been producing 40 points per outing in the last 2 games coming in to tonight's matchup. They're averaging 27 points per game (27th) for the year.
While the sun is rising lately for the Lakers, it's been setting for Phoenix the entire season.
The Suns have lost 9 of their last 13 games since the All-Star break and are just 15-17 at home for the year, including 3-2 in their last 5 games at the US Airways Center. But the Lakers haven't really found that much success in Phoenix having lost 3 of their last 5 meetings with the Suns.
Nash used to be biggest problem for the Lakers in the past. Now, that title belongs to Michael Beasley.
Beasley is averaging 19.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game versus the Lakers this season. In their win at home on Jan. 30, Beasley led all scorers with 27 points on 12-out-of 20 shooting. His size, quickness and ability to shoot the ball have been difficult for the Lakers defense to contain. But if it's not him doing the damage for the Suns, it's teammate Luis Scola on the block.
Since his days as a Rocket, Scola has always been a nuisance for the Lakers. He's averaging 15 points and 7.5 boards a game against L.A. this year. But with Marcin Gortat out with a sprained right foot, he'll be assigned to battle with Howard in the post.
Howard is averaging 15.3 points, 14.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks an outing versus the Suns this season. But in the last 10 games, he's been getting 16.9 points, 15.4 boards and 3.1 blocks on average. Against the smaller and slower Scola, Dwight should have another field day at the office.
This is the 4th and final meeting of the season for these 2 teams with the Lakers looking to take the series, 3-1. The Lakers haven't won at the US Airways Center since Jan. 5, 2011.
Matchup of the Game
Steve Nash vs. Goran Dragic: This is Nash's return visit in Phoenix this season. His previous turnout wasn't exactly a game to remember for Steve getting just 2 assists and 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from deep. Nash will probably not do anything too special tonight but expect him to have a better game than last time he was back in town. On the flip side, Dragic will need to counter Nash's every move if they are to beat the Lakers at home for the 2nd time in a row. Dragic is averaging 13 points and 7 assists versus L.A. this year, so he certainly has the ability to lead his team...if Nash allows it.
Keys to the Game
> Limit Points in the Paint: The Suns are ranked 26th in the league in scoring in the paint averaging 39.2 points a game. But against the Lakers, they are getting a ridiculous 50.7 per game average. The blame doesn't fall on Dwight but the team's transition defense and poor effort to help him challenge shots in the paint. Unless the Lakers gets hot from outside and maintain that the entire game, they will have to really limit the Suns up-and-down attack tonight.
> Dominate the Paint: Without Gortat, Phoenix won't have the size to defend Howard in the block. The offense will be a lot smoother and winning easier if the Lakers continue to go inside to Dwight first — even if the Suns do go with a zone defense. And they will.
> 2nd Unit: The Lakers probably would not have won their last 2 games without the production of Blake and Antawn Jamison off the bench. The Suns may be the 2nd worst team in the west, but that doesn't mean the Lakers won't need the hot streak both players have put on lately.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Steve Blake: The confidence for Blake has been sky high these days. His shooting, defense and ability to direct the offense have been so invaluable for the Lakers in their run to make it to the 8th spot. Look for that to keep going tonight.
SUNS: Jermaine O'Neal: The former 6-time All-Star has been a nice addition to the Suns. He's averaging 13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks the last 10 games. Against the Lakers this year, he has a decent 12 points and 9 boards average coming off the bench. With those numbers, don't be surprised to see him starting tonight opposite Howard.
@ Phoenix Suns
Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. (PST)
US Airways Center
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant (ankle), Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.
SUNS: Channing Frye (heart) and Marcin Gortat (foot) are out.
INJURY UPDATE – Pau Gasol: Pau had soreness on his surgically repaired left foot after participating in a 2-on-2 drill during Saturday's practice. The unexpected setback has pushed Gasol's return probably next game on Friday versus the Wizards.