Lakers @ Suns Preview

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D073785014.jpgIt wasn’t long ago that the Phoenix Suns were pushing the Lakers to six games in a hard-fought Western Conference Finals matchup, but one offseason move has left a major question mark in the Valley of the Sun.

For the majority of the past six seasons, All-Star power forward Amare Stoudemire was on the finishing end of All-Star point guard Steve Nash’s gift-wrapped passes. Stoudemire possesses a unique combination of size, explosiveness and touch that made him a deadly offensive player despite his lack of impact on the other end. He averaged 23 points and nine boards while playing in all 82 regular season games in 2009-10, but after a similarly effective playoffs decided to bolt for New York.

“The finishes that (Stoudemire) gets at the basket … I know that Andrew (Bynum) and (Dwight) Howard were one and two probably in the league in makes at the basket and dunks, and Stoudemire is right up there,” said Jackson. “That’s a high-percentage shot (that Phoenix) will miss.

“The combination of Stoudemire and Nash has been great in the last two years so that will be a little tough, but this will still be a real good team.”

Former Suns General Manager Steve Kerr’s replacement, Lon Babby, proceeded to bring in Hedo Turkoglu (from Toronto for Leandro Barbosa), Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress to try and pick up some of Stoudemire’s slack. All three newbies, however, are perimeter-based players, and Coach Alvin Gentry will in fact start Turkoglu at the four alongside center Robin Lopez.

Joining Lopez and Turkoglu in the frontcourt is 1994-95 Co-Rookie of the Year Grant Hill, while Nash is paired with Jason Richardson in the backcourt. The Suns retained key bench players Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye, replacing Louis Amundson and Barbosa with Childress and Warrick.

One way the Lakers can match up better with Phoenix’s small line up, if necessary, is to play either Ron Artest or Matt Barnes at power forward.

“Absolutely, we’re going to be using a lot of our small forwards in that power forward position especially against teams (like Phoenix),” said Pau Gasol, holding down the center spot until Andrew Bynum returns. “It’s a reality.”

Murderous Schedule vs. L.A.’s Schedule
After losing Stoudemire in the offseason, it’s almost unfair to consider what Phoenix’s schedule looks like through the end of November:

Home: vs Lakers, San Antonio, Sacramento, Memphis, Denver, Chicago, L.A. Clippers
Road: @ Portland (92-106 loss); Utah; Atlanta; Memphis; Lakers; Miami; Orlando; Charlotte; Houston; Denver

Of the Suns’ 10 road games, only two come against teams that missed the playoffs last season (Memphis and Houston), both of whom are very solid. Of their seven home games, only Sacramento, Memphis and the Clippers sat out the postseason..

The Lakers, in contrast, have 10 games at home and eight on the road, but only seven of those opponents made the playoffs last season, one fewer than Phoenix on the road alone. In fact, 20 of L.A.’s first 28 games come against non playoff teams from a season ago.

Other Suns Notes
- The Suns are coming off the ninth Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
- Phoenix has won the league’s scoring title in five of the last six seasons since Steve Nash returned to Arizona.
- Speaking of Nash … he’s the first player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 from three and 90 from the free throw line in four different seasons. The only other player to do it more than once? Larry Bird.
- Jason Richardson got much better as the 2010-11 season wore on, averaging 14.5 points (pre All-Star) to 17.8 (post All-Star) and finally 19.8 in the postseason.
- Phoenix’s 41.2 three-point percentage from last season was the second-best total in NBA history (1996-97 Charlotte Hornets, 41.8 percent), and better than any individual percentage from a Lakers player.