After facing six likely playoff teams to start the season, the Los Angeles Lakers head into what should be an easier stretch of games over the next couple weeks. That stretch starts on Sunday night when the Lakers (3-3) host the Phoenix Suns (2-4) on Sunday night. Despite the lighter competition, it will still be an important proving ground for this young Lakers team.
It remains to be seen whether the Lakers are truly as good as they’ve seemed over first two weeks of the season, in which they stayed competitive through all six games, winning half of them. That includes stellar team wins over the best efforts of superstars like James Harden and Dwight Howard, as well as a shocking wire-to-wire victory against the Golden State Warriors on Friday. If the Lakers can keep playing at this level, they could find themselves well above .500 in no time.
Suns-Lakers tips off at 6:30 PST tonight on Spectrum Sportsnet. Here’s some other key storylines to watch:
Luke Walton’s decision to bench Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram at the beginning of the season raised more than a few eyebrows, but the move has so far been working better than even Walton could have expected. The Lakers’ bench is currently the highest-scoring in the NBA, averaging 51.2 points per game along with nearly 18 rebounds and 10 assists. The primary bench unit of Clarkson, Ingram, Lou Williams, Tarik Black, and Larry Nance, Jr. also gets it done on the other end of the court with a solid defensive rating of 84.0. Whether or not that bench can keep up its stellar performance is definitely something to watch tonight.
Despite just missing the playoffs and getting slotted toward the back end of the lottery the season before, the Suns came away with one of the steals of the 2015 draft in shooting guard Devin Booker. Booker had a stellar rookie season and is starting to shake any notion of a sophomore slump after dropping 38 points on the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. The marksman has done damage to the Lakers in the past and will likely do so again at some point this season. It’s still too early in their careers to tell for sure, but the continued emergence of Booker and D’Angelo Russell could set up an epic guard rivalry between their respective teams, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant traded blows in their respective primes.
Randle goes on a Bender:
After much debate over whether he even fits on this team, Julius Randle has been the Lakers’ best player so far this season. The third-year power forward had his most productive outing yet against the Warriors, recording 20 points and 14 rebounds while earning the respect of Draymond Green, a player whose game Randle is trying to model his own after. Walton had nothing but praise for Randle after the game, calling him a “monster” when he starts playing at a high level. Randle will try to maintain his hot start against the Suns and Dragan Bender, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Bender hasn’t seen too many minutes in his young career so far, but the 7-foot forward has shown potential on defense when on the court.