NBA

Lakers, Suns headed in different directions

Two teams that have headed in opposite directions since they last met on the eve of the All-Star break hook up for a fourth and final time this season when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Suns had lost 10 of 12 to plummet to the bottom of the Western Conference standings before shellacking the Lakers 137-101 in the clubs' final game before the All-Star break last month.

Phoenix not only put up a season high for points that night, but also recorded its most lopsided victory ever in the 240-game all-time series against the Lakers.

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The first chapter in one of the league's most intriguing stories was written in Phoenix that night when Suns rookie Derrick Jones Jr., who the next day would leave for New Orleans to compete in the NBA dunk contest, came off the bench to make three consecutive shots, contributing six points to the win.

Jones, undrafted out of UNLV last year after having been ruled ineligible during the season, had totaled five points on 2-for-4 shooting in Phoenix's 56 games.

Perhaps inspired by a surprising second-place finish in the dunk competition, Jones has been near-perfect in the Suns' seven games since the break. He's missed only three of his 19 shots and averaged 5.1 points off the bench.

Jones enters Thursday's game with an 80.8 field-goal percentage, easily the league's best among all players with 25 or more attempts this season.

In fact, no player in NBA history has ever made 80 percent of his shots (minimum 25 attempts) over the course of a full season. Jelani McCoy of Seattle holds the record, having shot 56-for-76 (73.7 percent) during the 1998-99 season.

Jones has been part of a new-look Suns bench that has helped rejuvenate the team. Phoenix enters Thursday's game having won four of its last eight games, matching its best eight-game run of the season.

That bench crew took a bit of a hit early in Tuesday's 131-127 loss to Washington when Jared Dudley was ejected for head-butting Washington's Jason Smith.

Suns coach Earl Watson loved the fact Dudley had the back of fellow reserve Tyler Ulis, who had gotten leveled by a hard screen by Smith.

"Always proud of their fight," Watson gushed to reporters after the game. "I'm proud of the fact they stood up for each other. There's no doubt with this young team."

In the Lakers, the Suns might meet their match in terms of bench crews. Los Angeles leads the league in points off the bench at 49.9 per game.

Things have changed among the LA reserves since last seen by the Suns. The Lakers dealt away their leading scorer, backup guard Lou Williams, and have added three new players in Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis and David Nwaba.

Brewer had nine points, Ennis eight and Nwaba two in LA's 122-111 loss at Dallas on Tuesday night.

The loss to the Mavericks was the season-worst-tying eighth straight for the Lakers, who have allowed an average of 116.7 points in a seven-game stretch that began with the blowout loss at Phoenix.

The Lakers now own the worst record in the West.

"Teams feel like when they plus us right now, we're kind of a soft team that they can come in to get their offensive numbers against," Lakers coach Luke Walton insisted to reporters after the Dallas loss. "That's got to be up to us to change that."