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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Sasha Vujacic sees drop in playing time

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The most memorable moments from the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns were Ron Artest's put-back in Game 4 and Kobe Bryant's masterful shots down the stretch in Game 6.

But the most infamous moment? That was Sasha Vujacic's unnecessary flagrant foul on fellow Slovenian guard Goran Dragic in Game 6 that sparked a Phoenix run and made Bryant's clutch shots necessary.

The Lakers play the Suns in Phoenix on Friday and there's a chance that neither participant in the flagrant foul fiasco will see playing time.

For Dragic, it's temporary. He only played 13 minutes in the Suns' season opener because of a knee sprain and is questionable for Friday. But after a breakout playoffs last season, including a 23-point fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the second round, he's a fixture in the team's future.

For Vujacic, his diminishing minutes appear more permanent. Even though he's healthy, the seventh-year guard received a DNP-CD on opening night because Bryant, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown are ahead of him in the rotation. Vujacic is also the only player out of that group whose contract with the team expires at the end of the season (Brown has a player-option for 2011-12).

"It's real tough to play five guards," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said after practice Thursday. "We know that, he knows that, all our guards know it."

Jackson said that he had an instinct to put Vujacic, who averaged 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in the Lakers final two preseason games, into the game against Houston but held off because Brown was playing so well.

"Rotation's not that important as far how it goes," Jackson said. "It's about winning and that's important."

Jackson said that Vujacic will still be an option when the matchups are preferable.

Vujacic was the last player to leave the court Thursday, getting up shots after practice.

The Lakers and Suns have also downsized since last season and again, it's a temporary-permanent situation for both teams. Only this time, it's temporary for the Lakers, as Andrew Bynum's knee injury has caused the team to use Pau Gasol at center, Lamar Odom at power forward and Artest at back-up power forward for the time being. But that will change when Bynum comes back.

For the Suns, it's more permanent, as Phoenix replaced Amare Stoudemire, who took the free-agent dollars hurled at him in New York, with Hedo Turkoglu, who might be listed at the same height as Stoudemire (6-foot-10) but doesn't play with the physicality (he weighs 30 pounds less than Stoudemire) or the explosiveness. That won't change without a trade, as Phoenix's backups at power forward, Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye, are also perimeter-oriented players.

The transition period showed during Phoenix's preseason. The Suns went 2-6 including two losses to the Toronto Raptors by totals of 51 and 21 points, and a loss to the Denver Nuggets by 38. They also dropped their season opener 106-92 to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Despite their early struggles, Jackson doesn't think the Suns' success has set just yet.

"The combination of Stoudemire and [Steve] Nash had been great in the last few years, so that will be a little tough [to replace]," Jackson said. "But this will be a good team. This is going to be a real good team."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.