Kudos to the Suns, who still score with the best of them but have embraced the ingredient that wins in the playoffs. It was defense that got Phoenix past Portland, and it was defense that finally got them past longtime postseason nemesis San Antonio.
Now they face the next hurdle -- one that is difficult to imagine them overcoming despite their stirring playoff run. That would be size. If the Lakers use their size the way they did against Utah, this is going to be a very difficult series for the Suns to win.
With Suns coach Alvin Gentry not optimistic that Robin Lopez (bulging disc) will have much of an impact in the Western Conference finals, Phoenix will have its hands full overcoming the twin towers of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, not to mention 6-foot-10 sixth man Lamar Odom. That will be a theme from the opening tip Monday night at Staples Center. So will the Suns' prolific and quick-strike offense, which will put more pressure on the Lakers than they've faced since Oklahoma City put a scare into them in the first round.
The enduring image of the Suns' playoff success thus far was Steve Nash's bloodied and swollen-shut eye, which he overcame courageously as Phoenix closed out the Spurs on Sunday night. Nash will be the third consecutive difficult matchup at point guard that the Lakers have faced in the postseason. But what makes Nash more dangerous than Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams is the array of wing scorers and 3-point shooters that he conducts like a maestro.
Jason Richardson is averaging 21.9 points and shooting 52 percent (34 for 66) from 3-point range in the playoffs. After Lakers defensive ace Ron Artest didn't have an obvious nightly matchup in the Jazz series, Artest will now be able to focus all his energy on Richardson, trying to use his size and hand strength to get Richardson out of rhythm. Artest's strength, however, is banging with a scorer when he doesn't have the ball, or when he gets the ball and uses a rip move -- a la Kevin Durant -- to get an advantage off the dribble. With Richardson, Artest will need to pick him up quickly in transition to prevent J-Rich from finding space for demoralizing 3s when the Suns look for runouts off Lakers misses.
Amar'e Stoudemire will be the most athletic big man the Lakers have faced this postseason. Similarly, Gasol and Bynum will be the toughest test for Stoudemire. The Lakers have been at their best this postseason when Gasol has been active on the defensive end, but Stoudemire could pull Gasol out of his comfort zone by bringing him out on the perimeter.
With such a formidable size disadvantage, the Suns' best chance is to play the way Mike D'Antoni's Suns used to play -- rebound, run and get the scores in the 110-point range. Rebounding will be an enormous factor. If the Lakers take care of the glass, it will limit Phoenix's runout opportunities and force Nash to beat them with the half-court pick-and-roll game. Sweeping the Jazz, who run more pick-and-rolls than anybody, should have been good enough practice for that.
1. Lakers (57-25) vs. 3. Suns (54-28)
Regular season: Lakers won 3-1.
First round: Lakers beat Thunder 4-2. Suns beat Trail Blazers 4-2.
Conference semifinals: Lakers beat Jazz 4-0. Suns beat Spurs 4-0.
Lakers: Kobe Bryant averaged 27.5 points in four games against the Suns this season, his highest average against any team he played four times.
Suns: Phoenix is at its best when its perimeter players crash the boards. In 10 playoffs games, the Suns have gotten 16.1 rebounds per game from Richardson, Nash and Grant Hill.
Lakers: Artest. When Ron-Ron isn't ripping Phil Jackson and shooting errant, ill-advised 3-pointers, he's still one of the toughest defenders in the league. How well he handles Richardson and stays within the framework of the triangle offense will be a recurring theme in the series.
Suns: Stoudemire. The Suns' prospective free agent will be looking to avoid the kind of money-losing meltdowns that hounded Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer in the conference semifinals.
Key matchup: Lakers bench vs. Suns bench. Phoenix's second unit -- Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Louis Amundson and Goran Dragic -- represents the clearest advantage the Suns have in the series. Other than Odom and Shannon Brown, the Lakers didn't get -- or need -- consistent production from their bench in their two previous series. Brown, the Lakers' most athletic and best-shooting reserve, will have a big impact because the Suns' up-tempo style suits him more than it does any other Laker.
|Jason Richardson will need to avoid being disrupted by Ron Artest. (Getty Images)|
Berger's take: In the two regular-season meetings in which both teams scored at least 100 points, it was 1-1. This is the kind of game the Suns want to engage in consistently in this series to have their best chance of winning. If they can force the Lakers to play at a faster pace than they're comfortable with, especially when the second units are on the floor, the Suns can make L.A. uncomfortable and win the momentum game. In the Suns' lone victory over the Lakers this season, their bench outscored L.A.'s 52-31.
But you have to assume that the games will be closer than the regular-season meetings, which were decided by an average of 15 points. In crunch time, that's when the Lakers can exploit their biggest advantages -- size and Bryant. The Suns didn't have to worry much about Brandon Roy in the Portland series, and Manu Ginobili wasn't himself after breaking his nose against the Mavs. With the Magic cruising into the Eastern Conference finals with two sweeps, and with Cleveland and Boston engaged in a slugfest, Bryant can sense that winning time is here. Nobody will benefit more from a week off between series than Bryant.
The only factor that has tripped up the Lakers thus far this postseason has been the element of surprise. They didn't know Oklahoma City well and needed some time to adjust. While Utah and Phoenix play vastly different styles, the Lakers thrive when they know what an opponent does and focus in on stopping it. They're also at their best when they don't take a team lightly. Any team that swept the Spurs will have Bryant's attention. That's also bad news for the Suns.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.