Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said he was "proud" of his team despite losing their home opener 114-106 to the Los Angeles Lakers. Lakers head coach (and Zen master) Phil Jackson wasn't thrilled that his team took 27 three point shots but overall was "pleased with the way the team performed."
This is what happens early in the season. One team, the two-time defending NBA Champions without their starting center, is happy to get a road win over a division opponent. Meanwhile, a former contender whose window has universally been proclaimed closed and welded shut is looking for positive signs and things to build from.
"I did say to the guys, we're not going to play the Lakers every night, either. If we play with that kind of effort and if we execute like that and we rebound just a little bit better, we've got a chance to be pretty good," Gentry said.
The rebounding actually wasn't all that bad tonight either. The Lakers only had three more total rebounds and get this, the Suns out-scored L.A. 14-10 in second chance points.
The rebounding effort tonight was lead by big Robin Lopez who finished with 14 boards to go along with his 18 points. It was without question the best game of the young season for the third-year center. Lopez talked about the different role he has to play on the glass this season with Amare Stoudemire now taking advantage of some other big man's work in New York.
"I have to be that guy to hit the best rebounder on the (other) team," Lopez said.
"Last year, I hit him, stay on him and make sure he doesn't get the board. This year I kind of have to change up. I have to hit him and then pursue the ball as well."
The statistics don't show it, but the Suns played solid defense against the Lakers. The numbers that best reflect that are the 50-42 points in the paint advantage for the Suns and the 27 three point attempts that Jackson wasn't happy with. L.A. connected on 44.4 percent of those three's which is a big reason they were able to stave off several Suns attempts to close the lead. Kobe Bryant, lead the Lakers with 25 points but he needed 19 field goal attempts to get there and only had five freebies from the line.
"We played with great effort on (Kobe) , we did a good job," Gentry said about his team's defense on one of the best players in the world.
"We kept him off the line for the most part and I think that becomes important. You can see with this team right here that we did a great job on (Kobe) and then Pau (Gasol) has a great game. We do a good job on Pau and he throws it out and guys make shots."
Grant Hill was again responsible for guarding Kobe and just like in last year's playoff series, he repeatedly stopped Bryant's attempts to penetrate and contested the resulting fade away jump shots. Kobe still hit several of those because he's still Kobe.
The brightest, and most consistent player for the Suns off the bench so far this season is Goran Dragic. In only about 16 minutes of action, Dragic is averaging 10.6 points per game and 3.6 assists and is shooting 52.2 percent so far this season. Goran is both pushing the ball and attacking the rim in transition as well as finding teammates in pick and roll action.
Dragic's play allows Gentry to rest Steve Nash more and not bring him back until half-way through the fourth period. Nash was only needed for 29 minutes in tonight's game and despite his 8 points and 9 assists and typically brilliant floor leadership, you would be hard pressed to find anyone calling for Nash to play more and Dragic less. In fact, if the current trend continues the opposite might happen.
"I feel great. I feel like last season, my is confidence it up. I still have to practice to improve some things, but I'm feeling free on the court and I can do whatever I want so I am really happy that I am here with the Phoenix Suns and that I can play with this team," Dragic said. Unlike last year, Goran can no longer throw on a baseball hat and go unrecognized around Phoenix.
Grant Hill, who took advantage of mismatches against smaller players when the Lakers tried to put their better defenders on Nash, finished with a team-high 21 points on the night. He is also happy with where the Suns are, especially coming off such a disappointing preseason loss to the Denver Nuggets.
"I'm just encouraged by this week," Hill said. "We did it for 42 minutes in Portland and we did a great job last night (in Utah) and we came out and competed tonight."