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Suns prepare for Lakers’ No. 1 defense in energized rivalry matchup

Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis (3) and LeBron James (23) celebrate as they walk back to the bench in the final seconds of overtime in the team's NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The Lakers won 119-110. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns beat the league’s then-No. 1 offense on Sunday in the Brooklyn Nets and Tuesday face the league’s No. 1 defense in the Los Angeles Lakers, per Cleaning the Glass‘ numbers.

Yes, surprisingly with the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a one-two offensive punch, the Lakers have produced a below-average (21st) offense through nine games while the defense is numero uno.

Behind James’ rejuvenated form on defense in the regular season, Los Angeles boasts tons of experience in the rotation as well.

It has five players who have made an All-Defense team, and that includes Dwight Howard, who appears to have found some version of the dominant player he once was after being lost on multiple NBA teams for the last half-decade.

“People forget he’s a multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year and has bounce now, and for whatever reason, he’s playing at a high level in the minutes he’s been given,” head coach Monty Williams said after shootaround on Tuesday.

Williams also said Monday it was good to see Howard “getting back to the acclaim” that he feels the future Hall of Famer deserves.

From Danny Green to Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers have a ton of guys on their roster with past defensive pedigree. There was some concern and question as to how much left each one of them still had on defense — the last four in particular — but the unit as a whole is really showing something.

Credit should also go toward new head coach Frank Vogel. You might remember him as the lead man in charge of the Indiana Pacers teams that challenged James in the Eastern Conference behind Paul George and Roy Hibbert. The Pacers had a top 10 defensive rating in all five years Vogel coached them.

The Hibbert influence is clear in the defense, as Howard or JaVale McGee will be on the floor three-fourths of the game to provide a true rim protector beyond Anthony Davis.

“It’s a lot,” Williams said of those three at the rim. “That’s a luxury that they have.”

“Having a guy like [Howard] at the back of your defense is huge. It’s a different pick-and-roll coverage when he’s back in the drop and his arms are out and the guards are looking at a lot of mass when you go to the basket,” he said.

Using Davis as a secondary presence has been a tremendous success, but far more so for him. Of the 3.7 shots per game Davis defends at the rim, teams are shooting 21.2%, by far the best mark among players defending at least three a game, per NBA.com.

Meanwhile, Howard is at 58.1% and McGee at 59%, moderately high numbers. That’s why the Lakers are still only slightly above average on opponent accuracy at the rim — 10th at 60.3% — despite Davis’ prowess.

If there’s somewhere to spotlight, especially after Los Angeles’ loss on Sunday to the Toronto Raptors, it’s transition.

The Lakers were outscored 32-8 in fastbreak points in that defeat and are one of the worst defensive transition teams in the league. That’s something to watch after the Suns had 32 points off turnovers in the win over the Nets.

Also monitor the multiple options they throw at Devin Booker. Caldwell-Pope and Green offer similar size with veteran know-how and the ability to move laterally to keep up with Booker.

Offensively, Davis leads the NBA in post-ups per game at 10.4, per NBA.com. Davis shoots 48.8% on those looks, and the Lakers like to slow it down in general, as they rank 20th in pace.

With all those bigs, Los Angeles shoots a league-best 71.4% at the rim, but push them out of the paint and that’s where its poor efficiency of 34.1% accuracy in the mid-range (29th) and 31.2% from three-point range (28th) can be exploited.

Your “ruh roh!” for Tuesday’s game is the Suns are 27th in the NBA at the percentage of shots they give up at the rim, 38.6%. Barring a hot shooting night for the Lakers, keep an eye on points in the paint.

There are obvious matchup problems for the Suns.

Some teams are lucky if they have one player that can at least come close to matching Davis or James physically, but Phoenix has neither.

Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges have proven themselves as capable perimeter defenders, but James offers so much of a strength advantage against them. That’s why the Suns used Deandre Ayton on James in the second half of last season. They will have to figure out another option with Ayon suspended this time around.

At least for Davis they’ve got Dario Saric as a legitimately-sized power forward in both height and weight. Davis could still overwhelm him with his length and athleticism.

The Suns play an aggressive brand of defenses with their rotations, so seeing how those factor in and hold up off potential double-teams will be something we haven’t yet seen this season, as well as how much they commit to defending that two-man game with extra defenders.

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