That great American thinker, Ferris Bueller, once talked about how quickly life can change. In the NBA, life can move even faster than normal.
When the Phoenix Suns began last season, they were the odds-on favorite to win the West, while the L.A. Lakers were all but left out of the equation. Lakers star Kobe Bryant was making trade demands and avoiding the media, while everyone in Phoenix was certain that the 2007-08 season was going to be the one where their beloved Suns would get over the hump.
Now fast forward a year.
Falling just short of an NBA Championship last season, the Lakers return that same team that captured the conference’s No. 1 seed, while also adding a healthy Andrew Bynum. The bench is deep in every position and Bryant and Pau Gasol are becoming more accustomed to each other’s style. L.A., which was favored to win both the division and the conference by experts during the preseason, is off to a sizzling start, recording only one loss and steamrolling to a league-best 8-1 start.
Meanwhile, the Suns are flying below everyone’s radar. Despite being tied with the Lakers for the most victories in the Western Conference, boasting the second-best record in the West and bringing back a core unit that possesses two former MVPs and a possible future one, Phoenix does not finds itself in the national spotlight.
So when the two clubs clash in Phoenix on Thursday night at 8:30, will the Suns claim a confidence-inspiring victory that will get everyone talking about them as contenders again? Have the Suns spent enough time together in their new system to knock off a team that is winning by an average of double-digits?
Let’s take a closer look at the matchups to find out:
While the Lakers are guided by the always-heady Derek Fisher, the Suns are still piloted by one of the best in the game in Steve Nash. Although Fisher is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Nash is averaging 13.7 points and 7.4 assists, while shooting 46 percent from behind the arc.
In a close game, the Second Team All-NBA performer becomes even more valuable to Phoenix, knocking down free throws at an 89-percent clip. Look for Fisher to pester Nash all night as he attempts to take the former two-time MVP out of his comfort zone. It will be eerily similar to how Raja Bell will attempt to contain Kobe Bryant. Which leads me to…
Although Bryant once claimed that he had “bigger fish to fry than Raja Bell,” he would later come out to say that Bell is among the league’s best at defending him. Last season’s MVP is still the centerpiece of the Lakers’ triangle offense, leading his team in scoring (24.3 ppg) and assists (4.0 apg).
For his part, Bell is averaging 9.8 points and taking it upon himself to torment the opposing team’s best scorer. The Second-Team All-NBA Defensive player is also shooting 47 percent from 3-point land, which puts him in the top 15 in the league. The Nash-Bell backcourt and the Fisher-Bryant backcourt are both very experienced and have a habit of stepping up in big games. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that the foursome has some more tricks up their sleeves.
When the Suns acquired Matt Barnes during the offseason, they knew they were going to be getting a player with boundless energy and a vast skill set. Not only did they get wanted, they also inherited a player that is fourth on their team in scoring (12 ppg), third in rebounding (5.7 rpg) and a very proficient 3-point shooter (40 percent). When he goes to the bench, he’s replaced by seven-time All-Star Grant Hill. Hill is averaging 8.3 points and is leading the team in steals with 1.42 a night.
On the flip side, L.A. not only has a tandem at small forward, but a trio of contributors. Although Vladimir Radmanovich gets the starts (6.1 ppg, 1.1 spg), Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza have been doing the bulk of the damage. Odom has been his usual multi-faceted self, averaging 9.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.56 spg, and 1.11 bpg while drilling 50 percent of his shots from deep. Ariza has worked himself into the rotation with his hustle, posting 8.9 points and 2.0 steals a night while connecting on 43 percent from downtown. Similar to the swing states in the past election, the team that wins the battle of the swingmen could win the war.
The arrival of Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies not only changed the complexion of the Lakers last season, but of the Western Conference. Balanced now by a ferocious inside-outside punch, the Lakers jumped to the top of the list of title contenders.
Gasol, who when he plays for Spain, might be the best power forward in the world under international rules, is also potent domestically. The former All-Star is averaging 17.6 points and 10.1 rebounds a night while connecting on 54 percent of his shots.
And while the Spaniard may be the best at that position internationally, Phoenix may boast the best power forward… period… with Amar’e Stoudemire. Stoudemire is averaging 23.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.17 blocks, 1.17 steals, while shooting 58 percent from the floor. The former Rookie of Year has made his biggest strides on the defensive end this season, averaging a career-low in fouls committed. Expect this matchup between these two dynamic players to be the most prolific.
Although it is a duel of centers at opposite points in their careers, the Shaquille O’Neal-Andrew Bynum matchup still sizes up as quite a compelling one. Despite playing only 26 minutes a game, O’Neal is the second leading scorer and rebounder on the team with 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, while leading the team with 1.27 blocks a night. The “Diesel” also ranks fourth in the league in field goal percentage.
Bynum, on the other hand, is averaging 10.8 points and 8.9 rebounds while ranking second in the league with three blocks a game. After missing the end of last season and all of the playoffs, Bynum is attempting to round back into the form that had Lakers fans so optimistic about their team’s future. Could Bynum be his franchise’s next great center? He’ll only be able to prove that by his performance against his franchise’s last great center.
One of the most intriguing matchups between the two clubs exists between their two benches. Not only do Odom and Ariza come off the bench, but they receive a defensive boost and a scoring jolt from reserve Jordan Farmar. In addition, Sasha Vujacic can stretch opposing teams’ defenses with his 42-percent shooting accuracy from deep.
With Leandro Barbosa is Brazil, the Suns’ most explosive scorer off of the bench won’t be available. However, Phoenix has other options. Besides Hill’s leadership on the second unit, the Suns have the league’s former Most Improved Player Boris Diaw on the blocks. The Frenchman is averaging 8.6 points and shooting 57 percent from the field. In addition, Robin Lopez, Goran Lopez and Louis Amundson have been valuable in providing a spark when needed.
When considering everything, the two squads appear to be evenly-matched on paper. Both are in the top six in scoring and have a number of ways in which they can make you pay. Although choosing a winner will be tough, I’m going to say that the ultimate victor will be TNT… which will air the game at 8:30 p.m. sharp.