The Lakers (5-10) have won three straight games and will look to maintain that momentum when they travel to Phoenix to take on the Suns (10-6) on Tuesday night. Game Tips at 7:00 p.m. on TNT Radio and 710 ESPN.
Here are three things to know before the game:
A tale of three teams
At 5-10, the Lakers season can be divided into three five-game samplings that tell an interesting story about learning and developing who they are and what they can be as a team.
In their first five games, the Lakers were the worst offensive team in the league, but boasted one of the best rated defenses at the same time. They went 0-5 in those games, unable to shut down two games that were close up the stretch while having a hard time keeping up with some of the more aggressive offenses they faced.
In games six through ten, the team went 2-3 solely on the strength of an improved offense and some well-timed shooting (Hi Matt Ryan!). This stretch also saw the team struggle defensively, particularly when facing some of the Jazz’s most jumping teams (twice) and the Cavaliers.
In the team’s last five games, they’ve been 3-2, all coming on their current winning streak. This stretch has featured more improved offense, but also a return to some of the defensive roots that Coach Hamm heralded as the backbone of this team. Over these last five games, the Lakers are ranked seventh in offensive rating (115.0) and sixth in defensive rating (108.5), with a net rating of 6.5 and ranking fourth over that stretch.
Every season has its ups and downs, and sometimes, what feels like progress is just a small part of the season that is more extracted and cemented than it is. But, as the Lakers got healthier — even with LeBron wasting time — and spent more time together, they improved offensively and began to re-establish the defensive identity they had come out of training camp. The hope, of course, is that they can combine the defensive version of themselves from their first five games and their rounder play from the last five to push their season forward.
3-POINT SHOOTING UPS & DOWNS
The Lakers’ struggles from behind the arc to start the season was a huge story not only because of the historically low percentage, but because of the amount of attempts that went into that percentage. Through the team’s first five games, their 35.4 attempts per game was the 12th most in the NBA, which only increased the significance of the team missing them at the rate that they were.
Fast forward to today and while the team still ranks 30th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage for the season, the story is changing and not just because their shooting is starting to normalize. In the team’s last 10 games, they’ve knocked down 35.9 percent of depth, good for 16th in the NBA over that span — while bringing their number of attempts per game down to 28.1, the fewest in the league.
Reducing the size of your triple shots might seem backwards as the percentage of those shots that get shot starts to rise. But there is an argument to be made that team shooting is (at least) a partial normalization of the relationship between the types of shots taken, the inherent quality of those shots, and how that affects repeat attempts.
Take Lonnie Walker as an example. In his first five games, approximately 19 percent of his three-pointer attempts were pulled from the dribble. Now, this isn’t a very high sample (5 of his 27 attempts), but the quality of those shots was lower compared to the catch-and-take group. In Walker’s last five games, he has taken 0 on 3 dribbles. Subsequently, he took nine fewer triples in that stretch (18) than in the game’s first five sample.
Lonnie shoots an impressive 50 percent on those 18 attempts, a number he’ll fall behind, just as he hits just 14.8 percent on his attempts in those first five games. But, as things normalize, one thing to watch is what type of shot is taken, how that affects shot size, and how the relationship between those things really matters toward offensive success.
match vs. the sun
The Suns have won two of their last three games, including defeating the Knicks on Sunday night. They are a little banged up, however. Already without Cam Johnson (knee surgery) for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear if Chris Paul (heel) and Landry Shamet (concussion protocols) will be available to play after both missed Sunday’s contest.
With or without Paul and Chamet, the Suns have Devin Booker, who is playing at the NBA level to start the year. Booker is having his best season as a pro, scoring 27.6 points per game to go along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists to help the Suns have the second-best record in the conference.
After Booker, the Suns get strong contributions from Mikal Bridges, DeAndre Ayton and, in Paul’s absence, Cameron Payne who steps up to the starting lineup to provide some scoring and playmaking. Of this group of secondary players, Bridges has been the most impressive, increasing his scoring this season (15.8 points per game) while increasing his efficiency by shooting 44% from behind the arc.
For the Lakers, this is the strongest challenge in recent matches, not only because of the opponent but because it is a road match. The Lakers will need to continue their recent trend of playing with spirit and speed, but also bring poise and deliberate offense in the face of an environment that will be loud and rooted for their mistakes.
From a one-on-one match-up perspective, how the two teams deal with the other top players will be an interesting test. For the Lakers, Booker’s defense is a tough challenge, as his fitness and shooting from the guard position are top-notch. Multiple players can get a chance to defend him, giving him a different look while also keeping individual defenders safe.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis enters the game presenting a good challenge to DeAndre Ayton’s single defense. Ayton can use his size, strength and athleticism to try and contain AD’s scoring paint spots, but Davis’ speed and vast shot-making arsenal can challenge Ayton’s ability to defend in space and on the move, while avoiding fouling.