Behind two-time league MVP Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns have been one of the best and most entertaining teams in the league over the last few seasons. But they haven’t played on Christmas in 11 years.
Kobe Bryant, the youngest player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points, has been the face of the Los Angeles Lakers for the past decade, and this will be their ninth straight Christmas game. The problem is, the Lakers haven’t had any recent success in those contests.
Nash and the Pacific Division-leading Suns look to avenge their most lopsided loss of the season and hand Bryant and Los Angeles their sixth straight Christmas loss when they meet on Tuesday at Staples Center.
Three-time defending Pacific champion Phoenix (19-8) has the league’s third-best record since Nash arrived as a free agent before the start of 2004-05, and is once again atop the division, two games ahead of the second-place Lakers (17-10).
While Nash and the Suns have gained in popularity due to their high-scoring style, they have not played on Christmas since losing to the Lakers 108-87 in 1996.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, has played on Christmas every year since 1999, but has lost five straight since beating Philadelphia 88-82 in 2001.
The Suns and Lakers have not met since Los Angeles won 119-98 in Phoenix’s home opener on Nov. 2. The Lakers led by as many as 33 points, while outrebounding the Suns 54-34 and shooting 56.5 percent from the floor.
“It is going to be tough, they have a lot of length and size which is going to be tough for us if we don’t play well,” said Nash, who had a season-low three assists in last month’s loss. “But if we’re active and hustle defensively and move the ball it is going to give us the chance to win on the road. It’s a big game, they’re playing well and fired up to play at home on Christmas day.”
Despite its November loss, Phoenix has still won 10 of its last 13 regular-season games over the Lakers, and has not lost consecutive games to them since Nash re-joined the Suns. Los Angeles has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Phoenix in each of the two previous seasons.
Nash had his typical solid game with seven points, 16 assists and no turnovers in Saturday’s 122-103 win over Toronto. Leandro Barbosa made seven 3-pointers and led the way with 31 points, as he started in place of the injured Raja Bell, who may also miss this game.
Barbosa is averaging 25.7 points and shooting 54.3 percent (25-of-46) from beyond the 3-point arc in his six starts this season, with the Suns winning all of them.
“That’s our game,” said Amare Stoudemire, who had 28 points and 11 rebounds. “We’ve got players that can score easily. We showed a great supply of getting guys involved.”
The Lakers beat New York 95-90 on Sunday, and have won eight of their last 10.
Bryant scored 39 points against the Knicks to surpass the 20,000-point plateau. His 3-pointer in the opening minute of the third quarter allowed him to reach the milestone at 29 years, 122 days.
The Lakers star also had eight assists and matched a season high with 11 rebounds - his first 11-rebound game since he faced the Suns in November. The nine-time All-Star finished with 16 points in that win, and has been phenomenal in his last three home games against the Suns, averaging 38.7 points.
Bryant is averaging 30.0 points and 7.0 rebounds during Los Angeles’ three-game home winning streak. The Lakers have won eight of their last 10 at Staples Center.