Suns versus Lakers is one of the most eagerly awaited playoff matchups in recent times. In fact, not since the 2006 Suns-Spurs series has there been a duel that has been as eagerly anticipated and debated.
The Lakers are the favorites and rightfully so. They represent the prototype of what an ideal NBA team needs to have—a strong and athletic frontline, a defensive-minded system, and an all-world superstar in the backcourt.
With the championship pedigree and the winningest playoff coach of all time, it is not too difficult to comprehend why 90 percent of the prognosticators are picking the Lakers to win this series.
The Suns, on the other hand, have been a refreshing anomaly. They are relatively smaller, have tremendous offensive prowess, and play gritty and opportunistic defense without having a stereotypical ‘big-man.’ At the beginning of the season, most experts picked them to finish in the bottom-half of the western conference.
The Suns were quietly one of the best teams in the NBA since the all-star break, and they have shaken the world with a virtuoso performance thus far in the post-season. So much so, that the Suns are now the favorite second-team for every NBA fan in the country.
I am a hard-core Suns fan, and am projecting a 4-2 series win for Phoenix. While my bias undoubtedly plays a part in this prediction, I do think that my prediction for the Suns is defensible.
As a counter-point to all of the Suns detractors, here are 10 crucial must-dos that will enable the Suns to shock the world and beat the Lakers.
If the Suns play to their strengths and run, pushing the ball at every opportunity, the Lakers’ length and size will cease to be problematic.
None of the Lakers’ big-men can stay with a fast-paced Suns tempo. As Kenny Smith said correctly on Inside the NBA, if the Suns can keep the game from free-throw-line to free-throw-line, they will be successful. On the other hand, a paint-to-paint game will be all in the Lakers’ favor.
So hand speed-racer Nash the keys, and take it to top gear!
Artest was brought in primarily to guard every opposing team’s best player. While he has done a decent job of that against the likes of Durant, Melo and Deron, he also has the maddening tendency of taking unwise, quick jumpers early in the shot-clock. He prides himself on being a good long-range marksman (why, I have no idea, particularly with a 33 percent career 3-point average). The Suns should encourage Artest's thought process.
Most critics agree that this is one area where Phoenix has a distinct advantage. The Fisher/Farmar combo cannot hold a candle to Nash/Dragic or even Barbosa.
Nash needs to seize the momentum and set the tone for the series in much the same way he did against San Antonio—attack Fisher, score in bunches initially, and then let the resultant spacing enable Amare and their cadre of three point shooters to get into their act.
This is one series where I would like to see Nash average 20 plus.
The 37-year-old Grant Hill has already shut down Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Manu Ginobili, and to some extent, Tony Parker, thus far in the post-season.
Kobe will be a lot tougher to guard, but Grant has the lateral agility and the guile to make it happen.
On the other side, he has to be consistent with his midrange 18-footers to keep Kobe honest on him, rather than allowing Kobe to help trap Nash. Grant Hill has been a key cog in the Suns wheel thus far, but his most crucial assignment is coming up.
Significant space has been devoted in the media circles to Gasol arguably being the best big-man in the NBA, based on his playoff performances thus far.
With a 20-point, 13-rebound playoff average, there is validity to those claims to some extent. At the same time, the conventional wisdom for years is the fact that Pau has a soft underbelly that can be shaken, rattled, and exposed. Foul him hard and get him to the line in the last six minutes of a game, and his FT percentage goes from being in the 80 percent (excellent for a seven-footer) to the low-60s. His best games have been when he gets to the line early and gets into a rhythm; conversely, some of his more ineffective outings (Cavs and Suns in December) have been in games where he has been hacked hard early and often, denying that rhythm.
The Suns have shown tremendous resolve and grit in hanging on, and have repeatedly displayed the ability not to get rattled on the other team’s home court, as is evident in the facts that they have won four of their five away games this postseason, and they came back from double-digit deficits three times against San Antonio.
The Suns will need to win in LA, and to do so they need to remember the value of ‘hanging-on.’ As Gentry pointed out at halftime of Game two against San Antonio (after the Suns shot 30 per cent from the field in the first half), there is bound to be a phase in the game when the Suns start shooting lights-out, so they need to forget the barren stretches and keep shooting.
This happens to be the second of two perceived Laker weaknesses. On paper, J-Dud, Channing, Lou, Goran, and Leandro stand head-and-shoulders above the Lakers bench.
The Suns need to translate the on-paper strength onto the basketball court, something that they have done rather consistently throughout the playoffs. A bit of Dragic Magic, a sprinkling of Dudley's Junkyard Dog routine, a few Frye downtowners, and some Hard Knocks with Lou is what it will take to win the Bench War.
The Lakers get almost 30 percent of the available offensive rebounds, which affords them a substantial number of second-chance points. And typically, offensive boards imply openings on the wings and in the corners, which lead to open threes.
The key here is for the Suns to box-out and not give up under the glass. In the past, the Lakers’ ‘bigs’ have been great at playing volleyball with one another under the Suns’ glass. Phoenix needs to find the energy and resolve to prevent that.
The Lakers will get their second chance points, but the Suns need to get transition opportunities if they miss.
Andrew Bynum, while strong, seems to be a touch bothered by his late-season injury. The Suns, particularly Lopez and Lou, need to wear him down. This might be tougher than it sounds, but a winded Bynum is key for Phoenix to prevent L.A.’s dominance on the glass.
For Bynum, 20 minutes of having to run with Lopez and Amundson should be as exhausting as playing an entire game against typical, less mobile centers. The Suns need to ensure that happens.
Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, has been talking recently of the value of chemistry and how it complements talent. The prime case study of his hypothesis is the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns.
You can see that these guys really like each other, and are happy to play with one another. The way the entire team dog-piled Dragic after his Game Three explosion against San Antonio is a perfect example of that.
Conversely, the Lakers have a few men (Artest, Odom, Kobe) who are prone to become head-cases in different ways. Chemistry is never their strength, and a couple of hard losses might very well open the old wounds about Kobe taking too many shots, Pau not getting the ball enough, Phil being unjustly critical of Artest, etc.
If, as The Sports Guy says, chemistry is crucial, then the Suns have an obvious advantage.