Here’s a look at a bevy of topics surrounding a team that’s now won 19 of 26 games and 11 of 14 out of the All-Star break in advance of Monday’s tail end of a back to back in Phoenix:
NOTES ON THE SUNS
- Marcin Gortat (sprained foot) is out. Channing Frye (enlarged heart) is out. This means Jermaine O’Neal is starting at center. He’s found the fountain of youth with averages of 12.8 points and 8.1 boards per game since the All-Star break. The minutes of Luis Scola have fluctuated as well (17 minutes or less in 5 games), and he’s way undersized for Howard, so coach Lindsay Hunter likely need foul machine Hamed Haddadi to play backup minutes.
- The Suns are allowing 111.6 points per game on 49.2 percent field goals and 49.2 percent 3-pt field goals in their last five contests, four of them losses.
- Phoenix acquired Marcus Morris on Feb. 21 to join twin brother Markieff, the second pair of twins to be teammates in NBA history. The Kansas products have been together in the starting line up since March 8, along with Wes Johnson (9.8 ppg post All-Star break), Dragic and O’Neal.
- Michael Beasley has gotten inconsistent minutes post All-Star break (15 minutes or less in 5 games), but killed the Lakers in the 13-point fourth quarter comeback on Jan. 30. Former Laker Shannon Brown is no longer in the rotation, appearing in one game since All-Star break as the Suns try to see what they have in the young guys.
- Dragic has averaged 9.1 assists since All-Star break, and is the only starter from the last time these two teams played.
LAL LOOKING FOR FIRST BACK-TO-BACK SWEEP:
The Lakers have not won both games of a back-to-back all season, with age and injuries – and generally poor play early in the season – a factor. The good news for L.A.: they have only 3 of their 16 back-to-backs left, and they’re all against struggling teams. After beating Sacramento on Sunday, L.A.’s in position for a sweep if they can beat Phoenix. Here are the remaining B2B’s: Mar. 17/18: SAC/@PHO; Mar. 27/28:@MIN/@MIL; Apr. 9/10: NOH/@POR.
Check his stats in the last 2: 22.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 58.3% FG’s, 60% 3-PT FG’s. So he’s back in rhythm after a streak of four straight games without hitting double figures in early March, and back in form to a streak of eight consecutive games with at least 10 points from Feb. 12 to March 3.
BLAKE LOVING D’ANTONI BALL:
In his first two years with the Lakers, Steve Blake was reduced to the role of backup PG in low-post heavy offenses, which primarily required inside passing, dump offs and the occasional spot up shot. That didn’t exactly suit his style, as we’ve seen in his development under Mike D’Antoni. The coach who loves spreading the court and moving the ball around told reporters before the season that he thought Blake was perfect for his system, and we’ve seen why. With Kobe Bryant out, the last two games have particularly allowed Blake some more freedom. At Indiana, the Maryland product went off for 18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals, hitting 5 triples. He backed that up with 16 points, eight assists and five boards against the Kings, including 4 more 3-pointers. Since Blake returned, the Lakers are 17-7 overall (.708), including 9-1 at home and 8-6 on the road. He’s now hit 11 of 18 3’s in the last 3 games (61.1%), but perhaps more importantly – if you ask D’Antoni – his pressure D on the perimeter has made a big impact in the team defense.
KOBE’S DOUBTFUL WITH SEVERELY SPRAINED ANKLE:
Thanks to “significant pain and swelling” in his ankle, Kobe Bryant is “doubtful” to play at Phoenix, after missing his first game of the season in L.A.’s win over Sacramento on Sunday. Bryant’s ankle was bad enough to keep him out of one game, so it’s unlikely that one additional day was going to get him ready enough to play, particularly when the Lakers have three full off days prior to Friday’s home game against Washington. Bryant did make the trip to Phoenix with the team, primarily so he can work with team physical therapist Dr. Judy Seto.
GASOL EXPLAINS HIS FOOT PAIN (OUT MONDAY):
I walked out of the locker room with Gasol after the team’s Sunday night win, and he said he wasn’t really discouraged by having pain in his foot after playing 2-on-2 on Saturday, because having some pain is expected with his plantar fascia tear. It’ll be two weeks tomorrow, the front end of the estimated time he’d be out by two weeks. His plan is to get an ultrasound exam on Tuesday when the team returns from Arizona, and then see what he can do on Wednesday and Thursday. If everything goes well, there’s a chance he could return for Friday’s game, but Gasol did not want to put an expectation on it, as he simply doesn’t know how it will feel throughout the week.
HOWARD, LAKERS D PICKING UP:
In the last five games, LAL are holding their opponents to 93.8 points per game on 41.0% FG’s, with three of the last five opponents hitting less than 40% from the field. Dwight Howard has been the key, as vs. Sacramento when he grabbed 17 boards and swatted 5 shots. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 15.0 rebounds per game, and in his last 5 games, he’s averaging 19.4 points, 16.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game, clearly getting healthier and healthier. In fact, with 17 window cleans on Sunday, Howard matched the best rebounding streak of his career by grabbing at least 12 for the 14th straight game, in this case each game out of the All Star break, of which LAL have of course won 11.
EAZY EARL CLARK COMES BACK TO EARTH: The surprise story of January, Earl Clark, has struggled since the All-Star break as opposing teams put him on the scouting report.
PRE BREAK: 8.1 ppg on 47.1% FG’s and 40.5% 3’s; 6.3 rpg
POST BREAK: 7.9 ppg on 41.7% FG’s and 25.0% 3’s; 5.7 rpg
Expect Clark’s minutes to go down once Pau Gasol returns. Gasol will likely start, and it could be Jamison who replaces him as the first big off the bench.
LAKERS 19-7 SINCE MEMPHIS MEETING:
Remember the much-publicized big team meeting in Memphis, which came before the Lakers dropped 8 games below .500 and had many questioning whether it would be just the third time since Dr. Buss bought the team in 1979 that the Lakers would miss the playoffs? Since then, the Lakers have gone 19-7.
LAKERS.COM PLAYOFF TRACKER:
By winning 19 of 26 games and 11 of 14 out of the All-Star break, the Lakers have moved past Utah into the 8 slot, closing in on Houston and Golden State.
No. 9 UTAH (34-32) 1.0 game down. The Jazz have won only three of their last 11 games, and host New York before going on a trip to Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The Lakers do not play Utah again, and the Jazz hold the tiebreaker.
No. 7 HOUSTON (36-31): .5 games up. The Lakers play Houston one more time, on the final day of the season at STAPLES Center, and if they win, are in good position to win the second tiebreaker since they’d have a better Western Conference record (right now 19-21 to Houston’s 17-23).
No. 6 GSW (38-30): 2.0 games up. The Warriors went only 4-3 on a 7-game home stand, and have two straight road games at New Orleans and San Antonio. They’ve played two more road game than the Lakers, and play L.A. twice more, with a big one next Monday in Golden State.