I’m a firm believer that the path to victory is forged by the best players on each team. The stars are the guys that carry the load and have the ball in their hands in the biggest moments of the game. Offensive schemes are built around their talents and defensive ones are geared towards slowing down their exploits. That said, the stars aren’t the only players that suit up or the only ones that impact a game. We covered this topic in our look at both the Lakers and Suns benches and I truly believe that these groups of guys are also going to make their imprint on this series. But within every team or in any given match up, there’s also that player that is considered an x-factor. That single player that, while not the most talented, can turn the tide of a game or even an entire series with his particular skill set. This series will be no different and today I want to take a look at a player from each team that I think will play that role.
Suns’ X-factor: Channing Frye. Frye is a very important player to the Suns success. Throughout the season he alternated between starter and key reserve and in the playoffs has found his niche as the first big off the bench for Alvin Gentry’s Suns. His playoff numbers are nothing flashy as he’s averaging 8.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.4 fouls in a shade over 28 minutes a game, but numbers don’t begin to tell the story of why he’s important to Phoenix’s success – especially on offense.
Frye is the quintessential floor spacer and when he’s in the game his presence is crucial in dragging big men out of the paint so that Amar’e has open lanes to dive to the rim and the Suns’ guards have free paths into the paint on their penetration. For the regular season he made 172 three pointers on 43.9% shooting. For comparisons sake, Artest led the Lakers in made threes with 105 and Farmar led the Lakers in 3 point FG% (for players that had more than 20 attempts) at 37.6%. And while his three point shooting numbers in the playoffs are down overall (38.5%) due to a rough series against Portland, against the Spurs he was back to being on fire going 12-22 on threes for a nice 54.5%.
To me, there’s more than just a casual connection between Frye’s success as a shooter and the Suns success as a team. When Frye was shooting poorly versus Portland that series went 6 games, while in the next round they were able to sweep the Spurs when Frye was on fire. And in this series, I anticipate the same thing being true. If Frye can successfully knock down shots and force the Lakers bigs to either stick to him around the 3 point arc the domino effect begins and the Lakers advantage in the paint lessens. However, if Frye is missing the long ball and the Lakers bigs get to clog the paint while he misses from deep, the Suns spacing will not be as strong and their offense will be disrupted. To me, this defines his status as the Suns’ X-factor and I’m anxious to see how he plays against the Lakers.
Lakers X-factor: Lamar Odom. Surprise, surprise right? This is familiar territory for LO as he’s the player that, over the years, has carried the tag line of “if he plays well, the Lakers can’t lose”. Well in this series that will be no different as LO will likely see a bump in his minutes in order to match up with the rangy players that the Suns throw out to play power forward. And if Odom can take advantage of his match up advantages against guys like Frye, Amundson, and Dudley it will go a long way towards helping the Lakers advance to the Finals.
And understand that Odom will need to flash all facets of his skill set in this series. On offense his ability to both post up and operate from the perimeter will be needed as he’ll need to bang against some of the undersized Suns that he’ll match up against while also being an offensive initiator from the perimeter as Kobe and Pau go to work in the post on their defenders. On defense Odom will have multiple roles and need to bring his agility and length to the Lakers P&R defensive schemes, mark players like Frye spotting up on the perimeter, and still be able to recover to the paint to rebound. He’ll also need to have his head on a swivel and be the primary player “helping the helper” as Gasol is likely to find himself being the “show” man when guarding Amar’e in the Suns’ P&R sets with Nash/Dragic/Barbosa. This means that when Gasol hedges out to contain the Suns’ guards it will be Odom rotating to the paint on the diving big man and then if/when Pau recovers back to the paint LO will need to get back to his own man. Odom will have a lot of responsibility in this series.
This role is nothing new for Odom as he’s been used as a jack of all trades for the Lakers ever since Gasol joined the team. Last year against the Jazz, Odom was used as a part time starter specifically to match up with Memhet Okur and I think LO will be asked to do similar things in this WCF. Ultimately, I’m hoping that we see a more consistently impactful Odom than what we’ve seen so far these playoffs. No one can argue that Odom hasn’t made a difference in these playoffs. In the OKC series he had big moments in both games 5 and 6 to help the Lakers close out that series. The same could be said about the second round series against the Jazz as Odom hit big shots, recorded key blocks, and rebounded well in some of the series’ key moments. However, in this series, he’ll need to do that more often and over longer stretches. Is he up to it?
As I mentioned earlier, this series will likely tilt on whether the Suns have enough on defense to handle Kobe and Gasol or if the Lakers have an answer for the Nash/Amar’e pick and roll. However, I think that the performances of Frye and Odom will also have a major impact on the result of this series. If one of these players plays to his maximum potential and the other one falters the team that employs the more successful player will have a much better chance of winning this series. These players are the guys that I consider the x-factors. However, this is just my take and there are surely other worthy candidates. Maybe you think the return of Robin Lopez is more key. Maybe you think Artest’s defense and his potential to be both a shooter and post player are of more consequence. If that’s the case, I couldn’t disagree with those sentiments. So, let me know in the comments who your x-factors are and how you think they’ll impact this series.