10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -1.5, Over/Under: 213.5
With the All-Star Break (March 5th-10th) in sight, western powers collide in the City of Angels as the reigning NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers, play host to the surging Phoenix Suns, from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Apart from a certain team out in Salt Lake City, there has been no team hotter of late than the Suns (22-11, T-3rd in Western Conference), who have really settled into a groove over the past month and some change, winning fourteen of their last seventeen outings en route to pulling into a tie with the Los Angeles Clippers for third place in the western standings. Needless to say, this a MAJOR turn of events for a franchise that has certainly been one the Association’s most dour over the last decade; Phoenix hasn’t advanced to the Playoffs since 2010, spending much of the following ten years mired in basketball oblivion with the lone constant being change, whether it be the front office, the coaching staff, or the roster. However, there were signs last season that this team was in fact close to escaping the wilderness as they hired (Head Coach) Monty Williams to help guide a young roster through what had been a perpetual rebuild. Though they were only 26-39 when the league paused all activities due to COVID-19, the Suns evidently did enough to be invited to the Bubble in Orlando, where they very nearly punched their ticket to the postseason as the only team to win all eight of their seeding games. (Sharpshooting Guard) Devin Booker (25.5 PTS, 50.1% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 18.8 PER) acquainted himself better than most within the Bubble, exploding for 30.5 points per game on 50.3% shooting from the field, with the hope within the organization being that he (and his teammates) would be able to parlay that momentum into the ensuing 2020-2021 campaign, particularly given the unusually quick turnaround from one season to the next. To help ensure that that would happen, Phoenix pulled off a coup via trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, acquiring (nine-time All-NBA Point Guard) Chris Paul (16.4 PTS, 48.8% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 9.0 AST, 1.3 AST, 20.6 PER) to further along the development of their young core. And to the surprise of absolutely nobody, that is precisely what has happened. The eleven-time All-Star worked wonders with the Thunder last season, guiding their young roster to being one possession away towards the Western Conference Semifinals. With the likes of Booker, (former No. One Overall Pick) Deandre Ayton (14.5 PTS, 60.1% FG, 11.6 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 BLK, 19.0 PER), and (two-way standout) Mikal Bridges (13.7 PTS, 52.4% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.0 BLK, 17.0 PER) around him, there is no question that Paul has a more talented supporting cast to work with. Even at the age of thirty-five, he’s proven to have plenty left in the tank and the team has been all the better for it; with the veteran in town, the Suns have slowed the attack dramatically (29th in Pace at 97.0 possessions per 48 minutes), and as a result have transformed into one of the most efficient teams in the NBA, shooting 48.3% from the field (5th Overall), including 55.7% from within the arc (2nd Overall) and 37.5% beyond it (10th Overall), while dishing out a healthy 26.9 assists (4th Overall) in comparison committing just 12.8 turnovers (4th Overall). Williams’ charges have also improved exponentially on the defensive end to boot, allowing just 107.5 points per game (4th Overall) on 45.7% shooting from the floor (9th Overall), and yielding the fewest three-pointers in the league at 11.0 per contest (1st Overall). During this recent stretch of success the offense has certainly kicked things into high gear, averaging 116.4 points on an efficient 50.6% shooting overall and 39.5% from downtown, while dishing out a healthy 27.8 assists opposed to 11.9 turnovers en route outscoring the opposition by a sizable differential of 10.0 points per game featuring eight wins by seventeen or more points. This run has coincided with the healthy return of Booker, who after missing four straight games with a tender hamstring has returned to full fitness and developed beautiful chemistry alongside Paul; the 24-year old has averaged 29.9 points on a scorching 53.7% shooting, including 41.4% from three, eventually selected to his second consecutive All-Star Game as a reserve in place of the injured Anthony Davis (more on him later). Arguably the most glaring omission from the initial group of selections, Booker will join Paul, who was selected to his eleventh midseason classic, later this weekend as the Association enters intermission in Atlanta.
“He’s the complete offensive player. The way he scored the ball is not something I took for granted, and no one should. It’s a gift, and we certainly are grateful for it.”Monty Williams on Devin Booker’s season-high 43 points in Sunday night’s 118-99 route of the Timberwolves, the Suns’ fourteenth win in seventeen games
When we last saw the Suns, they won their fourteenth game in seventeen outings as they had their way with the West’s worst side, the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 118-99 affair from Target Center in Minneapolis, their eighth consecutive defeat. This one was fairly close at Halftime, with the visitors holding a slim 53-48 lead over the home side, but the Third Quarter is where everything changed and where the aforementioned Booker went to work. The 6-year vet exploded for twenty-one points in the period on a near-perfect 7-of-9 shooting (77.8%) and 6-of-7 from the free-throw line (85.7%), en route to logging a season-high forty-three points by the end of the night, the thirteenth time that he’s surpassed forty points in his young career . In the end, he was 15-of-26 from the field (57.7%), and despite hitting only 1-of-6 attempts from three (16.7%), he certainly made up for it by knocking down 12-of-13 from the charity stripe (92.3%), along with five rebounds and assists apiece, helping his team overcome a slow start to an opponent that they may have been overlooking at first. Ayton put in strong performance as well, totaling twenty-two points on 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%) and ten rebounds, while trading blows with one of the league’s best young big men, Karl-Anthony Towns, who himself was a former No. One Overall Pick as well; Ayton relegated the All-Star to just two attempts within the three-point arc in the First Half. Paul was much more of a playmaker, scoring only eleven points but handing out fifteen assists, while Dario Saric (10.7 PTS, 47.9% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 19.1 PER) added thirteen points off the bench. As a team, Phoenix shot 49.4% from the floor, but only 7-of-27 from beyond the arc (25.9%), though made up for it with 23-of-24 shooting from the line (95.8%). Both teams committed exactly sixteen turnovers, but only one managed to really exploit this weakness, with the Wolves manufacturing twenty-two points off turnovers, many of which factored into their twenty-four fast break points. With that said, Williams had to have been happy with his troops’ effort on the defensive end, for Minnesota could muster just 37.6% shooting overall and a woeful 8-of-35 from the perimeter (22.9%). With the All-Star Break just two games away, the Suns will complete this three-game road trip in Los Angeles for their first meeting with the defending champions this season. With the NBA recently releasing the rest of the regular season schedule, these sides will meet two more times, the second on March 21st and the third on May 9th.
Meanwhile, the All-Star Break can’t come fast enough for the Lakers (24-11, 2nd in Western Conference), who of late look like they’re finally paying the price of winning the franchise’s seventeenth NBA Championship, tied for the most in league history. Consider this for a moment, folks; Los Angeles hoisted their latest Larry O’Brien trophy on October 11th, 2020 and kicked off this current campaign on December 22nd, meaning that only a mere seventy-two days passed between the completion of one season and the beginning of the next. Compare that to their opponent tonight, and the Suns, who ended their season on August 13th, 2020, enjoyed nearly two more months of rest. With that said, if this lack of rest was indeed the price to be paid for championship glory, we highly doubt that you’ll hear any complaints lobbied from anyone within the organization, even though it seems that they are paying for it at the moment. Coming into this campaign, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka and (Head Coach) Frank Vogel made a concerted effort to bolster the supporting cast of their roster, particularly when you consider that they were very much a veteran-laden unit last season, led by (four-time MVP) LeBron James (25.5 PTS, 50.4% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 7.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 24.0 PER) and (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis (22.5 PTS, 53.3% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 8.4 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.8 BLK, 24.7 PER), who each logged HEAVY minutes during their championship run. Needless to say, the mandate was to give these guys a breather whenever they could, particularly James, who despite continuing to play at an elite level even at this stage of his career is still 36-years old. And it’s with that said that Management parted ways with a bevy of veterans including (Centers) Dwight Howard and JaVale MaGee along with (Point Guards) Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, as well as (Swingman) Danny Green, each of which played key roles in their run to glory. Incoming were veterans Marc Gasol (4.8 PTS, 40.3% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 11.2 PER) and Wesley Matthews (4.5 PTS, 36.8% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 1.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 6.8 PER), while both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (8.8 PTS, 44.1% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 9.8 PER) and Kyle Kuzma (11.1 PTS, 44.1% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 BLK, 12.8 PER) were retained on team-friendly deals, but the biggest additions came in the form of (Point Guard) Dennis Schroder (14.4 PTS, 43.8% FG, 30.5% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.8 PER) and (Forward) Montrezl Harrell (13.7 PTS, 63.0% FG, 6.4 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 22.5 PER). At 27-years old apiece, Harrell and Schroder finished one and two in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year honors last season, with the added benefit of poaching the former from their city rivals, the Clippers. Of course, these additions have been under the proverbial microscope of late with Davis having missed the last seven games with a strained Achilles tendon that will reportedly keep him sidelined through the other side of the All-Star Break. Unfortunately, Schroder would miss three games as well due to the league’s COVID-19 Health/Safety Protocols, robbing the Lakers of their second and third-leading scorers and not to mention a pair of stellar defenders to boot. With their depth sorely tested, Los Angeles lost four out of five games before finally turning things around over the weekend, besting both the Portland Trail Blazers (102-93) and Golden State Warriors (more on this one shortly) with relative ease. Coincidentally, this change in fortunes came with the return of Schroder, with the German international featuring prominently in these two victories. Against Portland he totaled twenty-two points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%) and 9-of-9 from the free-throw line (100.0%), while helping limit Damian Lillard to just eleven points on 3-of-9 shooting (33.3%) in the Second Half. An energetic creator on the offensive end of the hardwood, Schroder is also quite the pest defensively and has played a major role in the team’s sizable defensive improvement over the weekend; Portland and Golden State were relegated to an average of 92.0 points on 39.5% shooting from the field, including 26.8% from downtown, with 22.5 assists in comparison to 17.5 turnovers, all the while owning a commanding Plus-16.0 advantage on the glass.
“When you lose a mega piece like AD, it is going to take some time offensively and defensively on how we want to play. Over the last couple games, we have done a good job”LeBron James on the Lakers second consecutive win following a 1-4 stretch without Anthony Davis, dismantling the Warriors in a 117-91 blowout on Sunday night
When we last saw the Lakers, they won their second consecutive game over the weekend by embarrassing the Golden State Warriors in 117-91 fashion on Sunday night from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles. When these teams met earlier in the season, the Warriors rallied back from a late fourteen-point deficit to stun the reigning champions in a 115-113 affair back on January 18th. Even without the aforementioned Davis it was clear from the jump that Frank Vogel’s troops were focused on avoiding a similar outcome for this particular matchup was NEVER in question. The hosts erupted in the First Quarter as they outscored the visiting side 41-21 in the period, shooting 55.0% from the field, including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc (66.7%) and 13-of-16 from the free-throw line (81.2%), while doubling them up on the glass (14-7) and assisting on eight of their eleven field goals. James would score ten of his nineteen points in the Quarter, while Schroder and Gasol added seven and nine respectively. With the narrative surrounding James and the ensuing fatigue of carrying the team during Davis’ absence getting louder and louder, this contest was particularly significant, for he would participate in just eight minutes of action during the Second Half, sitting out the entire Fourth Quarter altogether. (Veteran Forward) Markieff Morris (4.9 PTS, 38.8% FG, 29.9% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 8.7 PER) finished the night with thirteen points on 4-of-8 shooting (50.0%) with eight rebounds and four assists, while Kuzma chipped in with another twelve points and eleven boards off the bench. Fellow reserves, Alex Caruso (5.8 PTS, 42.6% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 10.6 PER) and Talen Horton-Tucker (6.9 PTS, 43.6% FG, 28.1% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 11.3 PER), combined for twenty-five points to boot, as a grand total of thirteen different players scored for the home side as Vogel emptied his bench completely in the Fourth Quarter. As a team, the Lakers shot 47.1% from the field, including 11-of-31 from three (35.5%) and 26-of-38 from the charity stripe (68.4%), while limiting the Warriors to 40.7% shooting overall and 8-of-34 from downtown (23.5%), outrebounding them 60-35. Though neither team too particular care of the basketball in committing twenty turnovers apiece, only Los Angeles would take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes, parlaying those turnovers into twenty-two points, many of which contributed to their 22-13 advantage in transition. It was a game of highs for the champs, whose seventy-three points in the First Half, sixty rebounds, and fourteen steals were all season-bests, while James made some more history in becoming just the twenty-third player in NBA history to play in 1,300 regular season games.