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The Suns roll into Staples Center tonight for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. It's the third straight conference finals appearance for the Lakers, and the first for the Suns since they lost to Dallas in '06. The Suns are the oldest franchise without an an NBA championship, while the Lakers, of course, are the defending title holders.
It’s only fitting that the two should meet.
And though the two teams play in the same division, I believe few Laker fans really know what this year's Suns are all about. Heck, I don’t think the Suns knew either until their second round series victory over San Antonio. But that sweep, along with Steve Nash’s valiant one-eyed pirate imitation in the series clincher, finally put Phoenix in the championship conversation.
The Suns are for real.
They are offensive opportunists. They have to be. Two of their starting five should be in the NBA’s retirement home, sipping tea and playing Wii with Clyde Drexler. And while they’re not going to beat you with their athletic superiority or aerial acrobatics, the Suns are perhaps the smartest team in the league at exploiting their strengths. They have a legion of slightly-better-than-average players, who have meshed together both on the court and in the locker room.
That's a scary proposition, especially for a Lakers team filled with so many prominent personalities.
The Suns have camaraderie. They get into the seams, they move the ball and hit their threes. They enjoy being together, and have bonded as dorks of the highest caliber. They're unabashed internet geeks, who film C-grade Avatar knock-offs while traveling between games. (This shouldn’t benefit them, but for some reason, it does.)
Like dogs let out from the shelter, many of the Suns are transplants from other, more promising teams that failed to advance in the past. These guys are overjoyed to be running together, with one goal in mind.
I can imagine them looking around the locker room (thick with purple and orange, of course, and a Go-Rilla RIP shrine) at the beginning of the season. They realized GM Steve Kerr somehow stumbled onto a winning formula, with an uptempo drive-and-kick game. Phoenix stuck to their guns as all the NBA pundits wrote them off as just a flash in the pan.
Of course the Suns, who lack a true center, are facing the Lakers’ two-headed post monster. Phoenix plays little defense, and they are going against the third-most potent offensive force in the league. And they don’t have any sort of proven “Kobe-stopper”…if there even is one. Phoenix has to shoot the ball extremely well, play tough interior defense, and steal at least one game in LA to win this series.
Is it possible to accomplish one of these feats? Yes. But all three? It won’t be easy.
I asked my good friend Grace, a Phoenix transplant and Suns die-hard, about his take on the upcoming series. He knows more about the Suns and Phoenix than any of the experts, something he is both proud and ashamed of (…I think. I know I would be.) Here is what he wrote:
“Despite the love affair the talking heads have with Jason Richardson's 20 point games, the Suns' bench is going to be the true team barometer. The Lakers are the scariest team in the final four, but have notable depth and injury concerns. In the end, I'm hoping a high level of intensity from guys like Frye and Dudley can help Steve Nash ‘carry’ us to the Finals.”
And he’s right. Unlike previous incarnations of this team, Nash can’t carry the Suns alone. For the Suns to have any shot in the conference finals, they'll need solid play from the lesser-known Phoenix bench.
Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, two hard-nosed underachievers, are gone. The feisty Jared Dudley and the streaky Goran Dragic, who are still young and inexperienced/cocky enough to think they can hang in the late rounds of the playoffs, have filled the void. The rest of Phoenix's bench is full of unproven, yet inspired players, like Louis Amundson and the freshly-uninjured Robin Lopez.
On paper, there’s no way they should beat the Lakers. But look at their plus/minus stats and per-game performance, and you can see the Suns are playing better than LA has as of late. And as two of the Lakers’ victories over Phoenix this year came on the latter half of back-to-backs for the Suns, we haven’t really seen the two teams match-up against each other.
I know my predictions have sucked so far (thanks, Cavs), but I see this series going five games, with the Lakers proving just too powerful for the Suns.
Hey, Steve Nash. Yarrrrrrrr.