When you take a look at the Suns, it’s easy to get caught up in the big names – Nash and Amar’e or even Hill and Richardson. But, one of the keys to their success in the regular season and the playoffs has been the performance of their reserve players. The Suns go a legitimate 10 deep and the 5 players that make up their bench are strong contributors that are heavily relied upon to cut deficits, increase leads, and continue the style of play that the Suns’ starters impose on opponents. If you haven’t done so already, go check out the great scouting report that is up at Land O’ Lakers that provides a breakdown of all the Suns players (including their bench guys). Those tidbits of information will surely be on the minds of the Lakers as how they match up with this group of guys will go a long way in determining the outcome of this series.
I think it’s fair to say that the Suns bench is one of their advantages over this Lakers team. As I mentioned, there are 5 guys – Dragic, Barbosa, Dudley, Amundson, Frye – that have been brought along and nurtured to the point that they are confident and reliable players that play the style of game the Suns want. And while on an individual level they may not be extremely talented, they mesh well as a group and play off each other as well or better than any second unit in the league. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts with this group and if the Lakers are going to match up with them, they’ll not only need to adhere to the scouting reports but they’ll also need to find a way to match up with these players in a way that limits their individual effectiveness and thus throw off that unit’s dynamic.
At this point, I think we should explore who from the Lakers second unit is likely to see time in this series. We all know that the key Lakers’ reserves are the trio of Odom, Farmar, and Brown. These players have been in the rotation all season and will be important players in this series as well. However, these aren’t the only capable Lakers substitutes. Against Utah, Luke Walton got some burn and showed well in the minutes that he received. His passing, post up game, and ability to initiate the Lakers sets may have added value against a Suns team that the Lakers want to slow the pace against and punish with inside play and precise execution. And then there’s Sasha who will likely be healthy enough to play in this series after being out for nearly a month with his sprained left ankle. If fully recovered, Sasha’s potential as a shooter and irritant on defense could also come in handy against a perimeter oriented team where he can pressure ball handlers on defense while trying to space the floor for the Lakers post players on offense.
After comparing these sets of players, it’s pretty obvious that the Suns have the better group. The best player from either side is Odom, but after him I’d say that at least 3 (and maybe 4) of the next best players come from the Suns side (I’d take Barbosa, Dragic, Frye over our guys and maybe even Amundson – though I like Brown/Farmar/Walton as much in the roles that they play for us). So, how will the Lakers match up with this group? I think the answer to that question will come in how each of the teams units has been deployed during the playoffs.
Stylistically, we should understand that Phil doesn’t substitute in mass and rarely has more than 3 bench players (including Odom, who plays starter minutes) on the floor at one time. And while Phoenix deploys their substitutes in much the same way (with Nash and Amar’e playing heavy minutes and one of Hill/Richardson being the third starter on the floor a lot), the Suns do trot out more units where multiple combinations of bench players are playing together. For example, the Suns 4th ranked unit (in terms of minutes played) is the unit with all 5 bench players together on the court. Also understand that 5 of the Suns’ 8 most frequently used units feature either Amundson or Dudley at PF. Will these units (the all 5 bench players or the Dudley/Amundson at PF) be able to stay with the size of the units that the Lakers are likely to trot out considering that two of Bynum/Gasol/Odom will be on the court at all times? This is where the contrast begins and where Phoenix’s advantage in their talented reserves will be tested.
We should also note that Phil is not beyond going to specific match ups to see if the presence of one (or more) of our bench players can be used to shut down a specific player from the other team. I mean, earlier this season Phil deployed Sasha on Dragic for nearly every minute that Goran played. Remember, both Sasha and Dragic are from Slovenia and there is a familiarity that Phil would like to try and tap into. Also, in the past Phil has loved to use Odom on players that have Frye’s skill set as LO’s mobility to chase big men around the perimeter and run them off the three point line (ala how Phil used Odom against Okur in last seasons’ playoff series vs. Utah). These are just two examples, but I would not doubt if Phil finds a pet match up or two that he tries to go to in order to limit specific players and get them out of their game. As I mentioned earlier, this group is one that meshes well and plays very well together. If you can weaken a link in that chain, you can go a long way in disrupting the entire group dynamic.
While series’ are usually won and lost on the backs of the starters (and more specifically the star players), the benches will have their say in determining the winner of the WCF. And as we’ve seen over the past few seasons (as well as in the last series in Korver) a great performance off the bench can easily turn a game around or give a team an extra boost on any given night. The Suns have some explosive bench players that have been doing it for years (Barbosa, Frye) and others that have really stepped up this season to become real threats (Dragic, Dudley). Will the Lakers bench be able to match them? Or will the presence of starters on every “bench” unit help the Lakers against a team that likes to trot out its reserves by the handful? Which match ups do you think will be most important in these units? Let me know in the comments.
Tomorrow, we continue our series by taking a look at the Suns when they have the ball.