After the Suns lost to the Lakers 108-88 on December 6, Suns coach Alvin Gentry said, "I don't know where their weakness is. I don't know. No one can be any more physical than they can. No one is more athletic than they are." Well, Gentry has a few days to try and find their weakness or the Suns will make a quick exit from the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers beat the Suns three out of four times during the regular season. In their three wins they were able to control the tempo, holding the Suns to just over 95 points per game (15 under their average). But the Suns are playing their best basketball of the season and seem to be clicking on all cylinders. Although, the Lakers also seem to be hitting their stride. With the two teams playing at the top of their game this should be a great series. Of all the ESPN "experts" none are picking this series to go less than six games.
Here are your keys to the game:
The Suns bench is far superior to the Lakers. Well, not necessarily in talent but certainly in production. For the Lakers, every single bench player has under-performed this season. Shannon Brown has been fairly consistent but the rest of the bench hasn't produced. If Lamar Odom were to show up (as he has in past years in the playoffs) the gap would narrow significantly.
For the Suns, they have three players coming off the bench who
contribute in a big way. The one the Lakers should fear the most is
Jared Dudley. Dudley is deadly from three-point range as proof by him
hitting 9 of 14 from downtown against the Lakers this year. He's also
an underappreciated defender. Then there is Luis Amundson. He's a
hustle player kind of like Anderson Varejao. Amundson is the perfect
bench player because he energizes that second unit by rebounding well
and attacking the basket. And the third is Steve Nash's backup, Goran
Dragic. Dragic was absolutely filthy in Game 3 against the Spurs. He
hit 10 of 13 shots and poured in 26 points. When he's playing well, the
Suns have the luxury to really monitor Steve Nash's minutes and keep
him fresh for the fourth quarter while still running their same offense.
The Suns have a huge advantage in this department and it could potentially be the key to this series. If the Suns second unit outplays the Lakers than the Suns will at least be able to hang around in every game and nothing will come easy for LA.
Richardson has been lights out in the playoffs. He's averaging 21.9 points while shooting over 50% from three-point range. But the Lakers were able to contain him during the regular season. In the four games against LA, Richardson averaged just 8.8 points and hit just 3 of 21 three-pointers. Some of this has to do with the Lakers defense. They stepped out on Richardson and contested his shots but he also missed his fair share of open threes. Which Richardson will show up?
Pace of the Game
There's been a lot of talk about how the Suns now play defense. Sure, they've improved on the defensive end but make no mistake about it, this team wants to play games in the 110-120 range. During the regular season they led the league in scoring at 110 points per game and in their lone victory over LA they tallied 118. The Lakers want to play a halfcourt game and were able to do that vs. the Suns in the regular season. Not only did they limit the fast break points by the Suns but they were also able to stop the Suns from hitting transition three-pointers. The Suns look to push the ball and can then kick it for open threes. But by slowing down the pace of the game, the Lakers held the Suns to 33% from distance, well below their league-leading average of 41%.
There are a ton of other factors in this series - can Kobe stay as
hot as he was against the Jazz? Will Robin Lopez be able to return and
help contain the front line of the Lakers? Will Derek Fisher be able to
slow down Steve Nash? Can Ron Artest knock down some open shots? Will
The Machine return and provide a spark off the Laker bench? But I
believe the three keys I outlined above will determine this series. And
while my batting average on predicting series this postseason has been
pretty awful (yes I did pick the Mavericks to make it to the Finals),
I'll go ahead and make a prediction anyway. Lakers in 6.