As the 2010 edition of the NBA playoffs reach their penultimate stage, fans everywhere are filled with equal parts nervous excitement, longed anticipation, and frustrated restlessness. While it is true that the Eastern Conference experienced a relatively quick turnaround from the last round, followers of the Western Conference powers have been forced to wait over a week to bare witness to more basketball excellence.
In the grand scheme of life of course, a week’s obstruction from watching the greatness of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash hardly qualifies as a tragedy…but that is reason speaking, and as a fan, I am anything but reasonable this time of year.
So, delays aside, Monday night will bring us Game 1 of the Lakers and Suns showdown, and it will be a showdown marked with contrast.
For Los Angeles, this is business as usual, and they know they were expected to get at least this far. For Phoenix though, the season should already be seen as a tremendous success as they have outperformed every forecast or projection made for them heading into the year.
Their styles of play contrast as well. The Lakers want to pound to ball inside on offense, slow the game down, and execute defensively (Los Angeles was fourth in the league in Defensive Rating but only 14th in Pace Factor); the Suns decidedly want to push the tempo, get the Laker bigs to run, and score from the perimeter (Phoenix is fourth in the league in Pace and first in Offensive Rating). The Lakers have the league’s best frontline; the Suns led the league in three-point shooting and field goal percentage. Los Angeles is lead by Kobe Bryant, one of the great individual scorer ever; Phoenix is captained by Steve Nash, one of the NBA’s all-time “team-first” leaders. The Lakers have championship pedigree, having been to the Finals the past two seasons; the Suns seem to be the most star-cross team in the league, always falling just short of their goal of reaching the Finals.
In honour of the Suns’ bygone “Seven Seconds or Less” offensive philosophy, let’s delve into sevens keys to the series as we head into Game 1.
1. Lakers’ Sink or Swim Defense – With as much offensive finesse and talent that the Lakers have, it is sometimes easy to forget that they are one of the league’s premier defensive teams. I would go so far as to say that when they focus in completely (which admittedly is not as often as one would like), they are nearly on the same level as the Celtics in terms of their help team defense. The Suns will put that to the test though, both with their transition game and their unselfishness. Their willingness to share the ball, particularly off pick and roll offense, will force the Lakers defense to work for a full 48 minutes a night. Locating shooters in transition will be critical, something the Lakers did not have to do against Oklahoma but gave them trouble against Deron Williams and the Jazz. They have enough length to bother shooters as long as they close out in time, however their big men must be willing and able to move their feet on screens and provide solid help to support against Nash’s pick and roll brilliance.
2. Suns’ Speed against Lakers’ Size – Since Robin Lopez’ injury near the end of the regular season, the Suns have been forced to go small, and have proven themselves incredibly effective at it. This shouldn’t be totally surprising of course, since Amar’e Stoudamire was a center at times in the aforementioned “SSOL” Suns’ roster. The Suns can run better than almost any team in the league, and are not afraid to match that speed against their opponents’ size. That said, the excellence of the Laker bigs is unrivaled anywhere else in the league, and their posts are all versatile and skilled enough to shift between multiple positions. This is true of no one more so than Lamar Odom, who can play four different position for the Lakers depending on the matchup and could see equal time guarding Phoenix’s shooting wings as he will their straight-up post guys. Odom has been successful against Phoenix throughout his Laker tenure, most notably in the 2006 playoffs when he played some of the best basketball of his career. If the Suns hope to win the series, they will need to make Odom and Andew Bynum non-factors on offense, and look to exploit them on the fast break. They are unlikely to shut down Pau Gasol, so containing Odom and Bynum will be critical.
3. Kobe’s Hero Complex - After all these years, this needs little explanation. Bryant is one of the greatest players ever, and is already one of the most prolific winners in history, but he remains a lone wolf in many regards. His insistency on being the hero for his team, and his ‘lone gunslinger’-like mentality, has hurt the Lakers in individual games in the past. It has yet to cost them a series (at least since the 2004 Finals) but he must be careful to manage this urge and be willing to trust his big men, who are the Lakers’ strength in this series.
4. Nash’s Past Misfortunes - Fate seems to have it in for Nash, who has been bruised, bloodied and bullied throughout the years, all in the name of chasing that elusive trip to the NBA Finals. Whether it’s been a Robert Horry hip-check, a Tony Parker elbow, a freak accident to Joe Johnson, or a Tim Duncan three, there has always been a sad fatality where the two-time MVP is concerned. This is particularly hard to watch for Canadians, who want nothing more than for our hero to reach the summit and complete his Hall of Fame career as a deserving champion. The Suns’ past playoffs failures will serve as the subtext to this series, whether that is fair or not. While their win over the Spurs last week exorcised a lot of demons, his team still needs to take the last step.
5. Phoenix’s Support Cast - Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, and Jared Dudley will win or lose this series for Phoenix. This post-season it has been that as Richardson goes, so go the Suns. When he is on, Phoenix is nearly unbeatable, but when he is lacking confidence in his shot, their hopes plummet (a simple review of his points per game in wins compared to losses brings this point home). Hill meanwhile isn’t being called on to score as much, but instead has become a defensive stopper Phoenix hasn’t had throughout the Nash era, including Raja Bell. He will be counted on to contain Bryant, and possibly Ron Artest, throughout the series. Dudley meanwhile is Phoenix’s sparkplug for intensity and defense, and his ability to get hot from outside in a hurry will be critical if the Suns want to take advantage of the Lakers’ greatest weakness (see below)
6. Bench Strength (or Lack There Of…) – This category breaks down very simply – with the likes of Goran Dragic, Lenadro Barbosa, Channing Frye and Dudley all in the mix, the Suns have one of the best bench units in the NBA, while the Lakers have one of the worst (at least for playoff teams). Lamar Odom is the only player off the Los Angeles bench that resembles a reliable presence. If the Suns are going to win, they need to win the battle of bench points handily.
7. Game 1 Is Paramount– In one of the great NBA stats of all-time, Phil Jackson-coached teams have never lost a series in which they win game one. The Suns need to steal Monday night’s game, or run the risk of having to try and do something 45 other teams couldn’t.