(This was going to be a longer, several part preview with some new research, but circumstances change. So here are my notes and thoughts put together over the last few weeks, and we’ll all be watching Sunday).
Traditionally, I’d like to separate out the offense and defensive ends of the floor when looking at a match up, but it doesn’t really work that way with the Suns if you want to slow their offense, you have to start with how you work your offense.
What the Suns do statistically makes a lot of sense: they have the most efficient offense in the NBA, so they want to get a lot of possessions for it because they don’t think your team can keep up. The Suns averaged 109.4 points per 100 possessions this season, by far the best in the NBA, 4 points higher than the number 9 Lakers (105.4). They also averaged the most possessions, 98.1 per game, 4.5 more than the middle of the pack Lakers.
The first key for the Lakers will be limiting the number of possessions the Suns get. They didn’t do that in their three losses to the Suns this year, they got caught up for long stretches at the Suns tempo, they must take their time.
Part of that is getting the ball inside meaning a big role for Kwame Brown. He will be mostly matched up with Diaw, someone Kwame can muscle and get inside on, forcing help and other players from the Suns to collapse, which is what you want because it means they have farther to go on the break, slowing the whole thing down. In the last Laker loss to the Suns, Kwame was bothered by the speed of the Suns and their help defense inside, he can’t be if the Lakers are going to have a chance. He needs to power in for points or recognize the coverage and make a pass out. When that happens, guys need to drain the outside looks.
Two other thoughts about the Laker need to establish an inside game to slow the Suns. First, if Kwame isn’t up to the task expect to see Chris Mihm, who has more offensive weapons. Second, the Lakers should also try to get Odom posted up on Shawn Marion, who traditionally covers him. Odom shot 53.6% (eFG%) against the Suns this season. Marion is shorter by three inches, but is quick. If the Lakers can get him (or other Suns starters) in foul trouble all the better, their bench is not great, especially at the four and five.
Of course, the other big weapon the Lakers have is Kobe, covered by Bell, who can’t really keep up with him. Kobe averaged 42.5 points per game against the Suns this season and shot 50%. He will, of course, need to do that and more in this series. Kobe needs to be Kobe.
One thing about the Suns, like the Lakers of the 1980s, they will still try to run after a Laker make. Like teams used against those Magic-led Lakers, let’s see if the Lakers assign someone to stop the outlet pass to Nash. There are other Suns who can handle the ball and lead the break, but they are not as dangerous as Nash. One thing the Lakers can’t do is give up a fast break basket then race back down court and quickly try to even the score, taking a long jumper with 17 left on the clock. Run the offense.
Make or miss, the Lakers need to get back on defense and force the Suns to run their half-court offense. Not that it’s bad.
The Suns, even in the half court, get a lot of lay-ups off penetration from Nash and either his shot or a pass to someone whose defender rotated. The other side of that sword is they are also the best three-point shooting team in the NBA, hitting 39.9% on the season.
What the Lakers need to do is make them shoot from the mid-range. When the Suns run the high pick-and-roll that is the staple of the offense, the Lakers can’t let Nash step back and take the three (he hit 42.7% this season) but if he drives make him pull up and shoot from 15 he’ll still hit a lot but it will be less than free throws and not as damaging as threes. Same with the other Suns, don’t give them the lay-up, dare them to take the 12 footer.
What does bother Nash is long guards, and Smush (and Sasha) have some of that. They will need to have their best series of games as Lakers for LA to get the win.
Two other Lakers to watch out for in this series:1) Devean George, he is long and athletic and can defend, so expect him to get big minutes, plus he can hit the three; 2) Luke Walton, whose D is better than Cook’s and he can help make the offense patient and smart.
The Suns are the favorites in this series and they earned that right. However, if the Lakers play smart and to their potential, they can win this. They have been hot of late, and if they follow Phil Jackson’s game plan this should be a fun series.