Suns Looking to Duplicate January win over L.A.

Suns point guard Goran Dragic will be matched up against former mentor Steve Nash tonight at US Airways Center.
(Barry Goassage/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Aaron Seidlitz, Suns.com
Posted: March 18, 2013

Back on Jan. 30, the rivalry between the Suns and Los Angeles Lakers took on a different look at US Airways Center as the headlines that day centered on Steve Nash and his return to Phoenix.

By the time the game ended, however, Nash's return was in the books, a Lakers 13-point fourth quarter lead had vanished and Suns fans had reason to wear a smile as they exited USAC following a 92-86 victory.

Los Angeles returns to Phoenix tonight for the fourth and final game between the two squads this season, and while a few things have changed since that mid-winter match up, the Suns remain focused on the bigger picture in regards to their development.

Still, the excitement of a Lakers game is always apparent in Phoenix, and here are five aspects of tonight's matchup to keep an eye on:

  • The key to the Suns' win on Jan. 30 was the eye-opening performance of Michael Beasley off the bench. The small forward lit up the Lakers with 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting, which may have accounted for his best game of the season. Beasley may be rounding into form for tonight's game against the Lakers, considering he just poured in 21 points on Saturday against the Wizards.

    A subdued Beasley spoke after shoot-around at the Annexus Practice Court on Monday, and showed a focused mentality heading into the game. He said he had not watched tape of that Jan. 30 game against the Lakers, because the result he had against them was due to his own performance not what L.A. did or did not do against him.

    "We haven't focused on that game, because the Lakers aren’t the only team we want to beat," Beasley said. "I was just aggressive with whoever they put on me, defenders from Ron Artest to Earl Clark. You have to be at your best because a guy like Ron Artest is one of the best defenders in the game right now. But my mentality was just to be aggressive, get to the basket and to take the shots that I want to take."

    Beasley's motivation now has less to do with the Lakers and more to do with turning around the three losses the team just accrued during a road trip that the forward described as the worst he's had as a professional despite a solid individual performance against the Wizards on Saturday.

    "I’m not an individual, stat guy. If we had won, I would definitely tell you I feel great right now," Beasley said. "But we lost, so I could’ve scored a million points and still feel the same way right now. I’m not out here for moral victories, or anything like that."

  • Pregame at US Airways Center will be on Kobe watch, as the Lakers' star scorer remains uncertain for tonight's game while he deals with an ankle sprain and the flu. Without Bryant on Sunday, Los Angeles was able to defeat the Kings at home. Prior to that Bryant only played 12 minutes against Indiana on Friday.

    As for Suns Head Coach Lindsey Hunter, that just means potentially shifting the focus away from Bryant and toward center Dwight Howard.

    With point guard Steve Nash running the show in Bryant's short absence, Hunter is seeing a Lakers team that is starting to look a lot like the teams Howard used to be on in Orlando.

    "They’re surrounding him with shooters,' Hunter said. "It looks kind of like the old Orlando Magic teams he used to be a part of, which makes them a tough team to defend. They can spread you out, and then get deep-post position with him and he’ll spray the ball out for shooters.

    "We have to do a better job of taking the challenge one-on-one, first of all. When you do that, it makes your scheme work a lot easier."

  • While the Lakers are hoping Bryant's ankle heals soon, the team is witnessing a resurgence from Howard.

    Over his last five games, the center has averaged 19.4 points, 16.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. Los Angeles, not surprisingly, has won four of those five games. It appears as though Howard is becoming that force in the middle that the team was expecting him to be.

    Hunter admitted that he thinks Howard looks as healthy as he's been all season, and the adjustment the Lakers have made is running him hard to the rim more often. That development takes shape in the half-court pick-and-roll or on the break, when Howard's athleticism is perhaps at its most valuable.

  • The Suns have inserted 17-year veteran Jermaine O'Neal into the starting lineup at center for the last two games, while Marcin Gortat remains out due to a sprained arch.

    O'Neal had 18 points against Atlanta on Friday, and before that returned to the team to play against Houston on Wednesday. The big man had missed four games prior to that to be with his family, while his daughter had surgery to repair a leaky valve in her heart.

    His presence on the court is one that Hunter has come to value, especially as he's played a younger forward rotation featuring more of the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.

    "I think you have to have somebody out there who can help (the younger players) out along the way, especially when it starts to get tough out there," Hunter said. "Those guys haven’t been in those situations, so it helps to have a steady veteran out there to keep them under control and to tell them what to do and how to handle it."

  • After setting a career-high in assists with 18 against Portland back on Feb. 19, Suns point guard Goran Dragic nearly reached that total again on March 8 in a loss to the Kings. He had 16 assists to go with 17 points and five steals. In a matchup with his former mentor, Nash, Dragic should be motivated to prove, once again, how far he's come in his still young four-year NBA career.