Lakers In Valley of the Sun

D070428014.jpgOn Friday evening in Phoenix, the Lakers and Suns are set to face off for the fourth and final time of the 2009-10 regular season, with L.A. holding a 2-1 lead thus far after two home wins and a road loss.

The details: back on November 12 in Los Angeles, the Lakers demolished the Suns 121-102. Less than a month later, the result wasn’t too different, the Purple and Gold running away with a 108-88 victory for a cumulative + 39 on Phoenix.

But on Dec. 28, Phoenix turned the tables in their own building to the tune of a 118-103 victory. So we’re at +24.

Heading into that matchup, the Suns had struggled, losing 9-of-13 games during their worst stretch of the season (L.A. tends to bring out the best in its opponents, after all).

Yet with Friday’s game at US Airways Center on the horizon, the Suns are hot, winning 8-of-10 games to settle into sixth place in the Western Conference with a 40-25 record, 2.5 games back of Utah (who accounted for one of the two recent Suns losses).

D069980033.jpgWith 17 games left on the schedule, climbing into the top four seems a reasonable, if difficult, goal for Phoenix. The Suns have nine games at home and eight on the road, highlighted by home-and-away contests against current No. 4 Utah (included a season finale at Utah on April 14) that could well decide each team’s playoff slot.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have gone just 9-11 in their last 20 road games, a stretch that began with that Dec. 28 road loss to Phoenix, and have seen their lead over Dallas diminish to 2.5 games. L.A. will be looking to go 3-1 against Phoenix for the third straight season, coming after three straight seasons (2004-07) that saw the Suns win the regular season matchup. Phil Jackson’ squad is 3-7 in its last 10 games in Arizona, though Jackson has a 25-14 record against the Suns overall while coaching the Lakers.

A few other Lakers – Suns connections: Phoenix forward Jared Dudley was a teammate of Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown in Charlotte; Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright won three championships as a center for Jackson’s Bulls (1990-92); and Luke Walton and Suns center Channing Frye were college teammates at Arizona for two seasons (2001-02, 2002-03).

Frye, who has made a team-high 139 triples (43.4 percent) and effectively spaced the floor for Phoenix, will not play against L.A. due to a one-game suspension for getting into a skirmish with Indiana’s Danny Granger on March 6 (Phoenix’s last game, an improbably long break in the schedule). That hurts, as Frye’s shooting helps pull one of L.A.’s bigs out of the paint, but Phoenix does get Leandro Barbosa back from a 21-game absence during which the Suns went 15-6.

The game tips off at 6 p.m. and can be seen on KCAL or listened to on 710 ESPN radio, and as always.

Phil Jackson Pregame Notes
A summary of Lakers Coach Phil Jackson’s responses to pregame questions from assembled media:
- Jackson said he was not surprised that Amare Stoudemire wasn’t dealt prior to the NBA’s trade deadline in February, noting that on one hand he’s a very difficult player to replace from a talent standpoint, and that deals involving such high level players are very complicated.

- The Suns, to Jackson, are a different team with Robin Lopez playing at center as opposed to Channing Frye, who started 41 games (including all three against L.A.) before giving way to Lopez 24 games ago. “He can get down there and wrestle with big guys,” said Phil, something Phoenix hasn’t had since Shaquille O’Neal left.

- Jackson cited Jordan Farmar’s injured finger as a reason for his recent shooting struggles (Farmar is 2-for-11 in his last two games). He added that Sasha Vujacic continues to deal with his shoulder, but is hoping he’s able to resume running around screens and hitting shots.