Archives For May 2010

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Despite what many pundits may think, this series is not over. Yes, Phoenix was overmatched on Monday but unless that first win actually counted as four (here’s a hint – it didn’t) there are still games left to be played. That means there will be new strategies employed and different tactics used by both teams in order to try bring home the win in game two.

As we mentioned in this morning’s links, the Lakers are preparing themselves for different defensive looks from the Suns.  Phoenix did little right in trying to contain the Lakers offense so a different approach is surely in order.  So, what can we expect from the Suns?  As Doug Collins repeated several times in the national telecast of game 1, the Suns are going to try some zone defense.  The Suns must understand that the Lakers destroyed the interior of their man to man schemes with determined dribble penetration to the middle and far too easy post entries to Pau Gasol.  So, playing a zone is a natural remedy to try and slow down what worked so well in game one.  Understand too, that Phoenix isn’t just going to trot out its zone for the first time tonight.  They’ve been a very good zone defense team over the course of the season and gave the Lakers fits playing this D in patches in the March match up and also detroying Denver (among others) with their active 2-3 zone earlier this season.

In order to attack this defense I hope that the Lakers don’t vary too much from their game one approach, but I do hope that they add a few wrinkles to their sets.  Understand the the Triangle is a natural foil to any zone defense because of the ball and player movement that is built in to the offense.  So, if the Lakers are to attack the Suns’ zone, they’ll need to rely on crisp execution of their sets and not fall back on just swinging the ball around the perimeter and settling for the first available open jumpshot. 

So, what I hope to see is two fold.  First, I’d like for the Lakers to again try to get the ball into the corner so as to initiate their sideline initiation.  However, a wrinkle I’d like to see is to have the topside guard (after passing to the corner) not clear through the lane right away and instead hold his position on the strong side in order to keep the Triangle in tact.  If the man in the corner makes the post entry, then I’d like to see the topside guard cut hard to the basket with the post passer staying home on the sideline as a release man in case the big man doesn’t have a good shot.  This action forces the Suns defense to guard all three strong side Lakers with their three zone defenders and essentially creates one on one matchups with every offensive player.  This will enable the Lakers to attack the Suns zone as if they were playing man to man, which as proven in game 1 was not successful.  Without the ability to diagram this, visualize this formation: when the ball is in the post he’ll have a defender on his back and the other two Suns defenders on that side will be guarding the two Lakers wings. Those two defenders will either have to stay with the Lakers wings or help down.  If the Suns topside guard helps down, the cutting Laker will be open with his dive to the hoop.  If the strong side forward digs down off of the player who made the post entry, that player will then be open for a kick out pass.  This simple zone offense, but the Lakers will need to show patience to execute it.

The second thing I’d like to see from the Lakers is a continuation of their strong committment to dribble penetration.  The key to breaking down a zone is to get the ball into the middle of the floor.  Once the ball is the middle, the entire zone collapses and there are going to open offensive players all over the court.  Getting the ball into the middle can be done via the pass or off the dribble and I’d like to see the Lakers not be overly dependent on trying to just pass the ball into the paint to either the post up man or a flashing big coming from the weak side.  If the Suns allign their defense to take away the corner pass (as they did in game 1), the middle drive will be open.  When the ball is penetrated you can expect the weak side defenders to then show help.  And this is where I want to see a bit of a wrinkle from the Lakers offense.  When the help defender comes the easy pass is going to be to the weakside wing.  When that player catches teh ball, rather than settling for the open jumpshot I’d like to see him penetrate the ball as well.  This second act of penetration will throw the Suns defense into full scramble mode and their zone principles will be broken down almost entirely.  This will open up passes to the big men when interior defenders are forced to help and also open up offensive rebounding lanes from both our bigs and our the player that is in the opposite corner.  This form of attack is what the Lakers used to much success in game 5 against OKC.  Even though the Thunder weren’t playing a zone, their sagging defense simulated one.  So when the Lakers penetrated, kicked, then penetrated again the result was a slew of open layups and offensive rebounds by the Lakers bigs.  I hope to see the same results tonight.

The other defensive tactic that we can expect the Suns to employ are hard double teams on Kobe and Pau any time they get the ball 15 feet and in.  In game 1 both Kobe and Pau were left free to operate on an island too frequently against players that struggled to guard them and they were way able to create good shots much too easily.  By double teaming Kobe and Pau the hope will be to make other Lakers score the ball and thus carry the offensive load.  This tactic is nothing new to the Lakers as Utah double teamed Kobe for nearly the entire second round and Pau has seen double teams off and on since the OKC series.  In order to beat these schemes the Lakers must be active cutting to the ball and diving to the rim from both the top of the key and from the weakside.  When the double team comes the Lakers need to cut behind that doubling defender and occupy the space that the defender is ceding when he comes to attack.  This will force an over compensation of the Suns defense where help on the dive man either comes early (which creates easy cross court passes) or comes late (and the flash man is open).  Either way, the Lakers have proven in the past double teaming their best passers (Pau and Kobe) will ultimately be ineffective if everyone off the ball is doing their jobs.  Tonight, I hope to see those other players focus and make the correct reads.

Offensively, the Suns aren’t likely to make too many adjustments but they do need to find a way to get into the paint more frequently.  Stoudemire especially was forced to shoot a lot of jumpshots to get his points and unless Phoenix can get him catches on the move to the basket their offense (while still excellent) will not perform to its peak efficiency.  So, expect Amar’e to slip more screens or feint like he’s going to screen only to release early so he can receive passes on the move and ahead of the Lakers rotating defense.  This action will allow Amar’e to either make easier catches going to the basket or force rotating Lakers to move off of perimeter players which will then open up passing lanes to shooters behind the arc.  In order to counteract this, the Laker must continue to have active hands in the passing lanes and show extreme discipline in their help and recovery so they can both disrupt Amar’e on his cuts and still get back to shooters and contest shots.

As it is with every series, the adjustments begin now.  In game 1, the Lakers proved that if nothing changes they’ll win this series handily.  So Phoenix must now try to make the necessary changes that turn the tide of the game in their favor.  That said, the Lakers have been running the same systems and have seen what Phoenix does for many seasons now.  None of these adjustments should be surprises.  In order for the Lakers to prevail tonight, it will take an even greater commitment to sniffing out these adjustments and then responding to them with a focussed execution that matches the Suns.  If the Lakers are able to accomplish this, they’ll do enough to win the game.  However, if they rest on their game 1 win and don’t act out what they’ve covered in practice, Phoenix will be right back in this series and steal the home court advantage from under the Lakers’ noses.  As I mentioned earlier, many have already handed this series to the Lakers.  With only a 1-0 lead that’s premature.  Talk to me about control if the Lakers do what’s needed tonight.

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 Phillip is working on his short game this morning so you guys are stuck with the pure randomness of my scattered mind for this morning’s links. Enjoy…

*The big news around the Lakers/Suns series is that a certain all-star big man that wears shades and likes the ‘Art of War’ said that Lamar Odom had a lucky game when he went off for 19 and 19 in game one.  I really don’t know if Odom gets motivated by things like this, but if he does and can channel whatever he’s feeling into positive play I think STAT made a mistake on this one.  Odom’s a pretty humble guy, but he’s also prideful in his ability and his game.  From a Lakers’ perspective, here’s hoping that LO comes ready to play again because we all know the difference he can make when he’s playing well.

*Speaking of Amar’e, the Lakers exploited him on Monday.  You want to know how?  Go check out Land O’ Lakers as they give us 5 ways that LA took advantage of Stoudemire.

*And not to continue to harp on Amar’e, but he had 3 rebounds in 34 minutes game 1.  Bynum, in his 19 minutes and with a balky knee had 4.  Hopefully, with Bynum saying that he feels fine and that the swelling is down in his knee, he can bring even more to the table in tonight’s game 2.

*But the story from game 1 wasn’t Bynum (or even LO or STAT).  The story was Kobe and how he demolished the Suns’ defense to the tune of 40 points.  Even though Alvin Gentry said the Suns could “live” with Kobe getting those points, I’m pretty sure that’s code for “40 points is too many” and he’ll definitely be looking to slow down #24 tonight.  So, the Lakers are preparing to see a variety of different schemes tonight including some zone and hard double teams. (Hat tip to TrueHoop.)

*I’m a little late on these but since we’re talking about the past, maybe it doesn’t matter.  Check out Roland Lazenby’s latest on why the great Elgin Baylor (despite never winning a title) may be the all-time playoff MVP and then after that go check out more Land O’ Lakers as they’re taking a look at the top 10 Lakers playoff moments.  They’ve already looked at a classic Shaq performance and one of the Logo’s great clutch plays.

*Speaking of the past, Undrcrwn has put up a few classic pictures for their morning inspiration.  I don’t know about you, but they put a smile on my face.  Ahh, the good old days.

*Bringing it back to the present for a moment, Shannon Brown’s dunk attempt has been the talk of the internet for the past day and a half.  Can you imagine if he made it?  Let the record show that Shannon says if he would have focussed on the rim sooner, he would have made the basket

*I’ve tried to keep the links Laker heavy, but I can’t wrap up without giving a word of congratulations to the Washington Wizards for winning the draft lotterly last night.  They now have the right to draft whoever they want (John Wall) and start anew with their rebuilding efforts.  Lets hope that this #1 overall pick turns out better than their last one.  (Although, that guy did help us get our big Spaniard so I’m glad in some ways that it all played out the way it did with Kwame.  See, I knew I could bring it back to the Lakers.)

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Coming into the WCF, few would have argued that the Suns bench was a much better group than the Lakers bench. And while one game does not make a season nor does it erase the poor play that has been littered throughout this years’ campaign, the Lakers bench came to play last night and it was a major key in the rout of the Suns. The Lakers bench out scored, out rebounded, out assisted, and had fewer turnovers than the highly praised bench of the Suns. After the game, Shannon Brown admitted that the constant reminder of the Suns’ superior second unit served as motivation for the Lakers reserves and they came into game 1 wanting to show that they had some game as well. Mission accomplished.

I know what everyone is thinking (I know, because I can read minds) – “this group doesn’t deserve recognition after one good game”.  And that sentiment is correct.  So, I decided to look into the stats for these guys and compare those numbers with how I recall them playing for the past several games and the conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s been more than just one game.  The bench has actually been playing decent to very good ball for a little while now.

I mean, did you realize that dating back to game 5 of the OKC series (7 games) Jordan Farmar has made 9 of his last 16 three point attempts (56%)?  That in that same period he’s only had 4 turnovers in comparison to 11 assists?  That for the playoffs he’s 8-11 from the foul line (73%) which is up from his regular season mark of 67%.  I know these aren’t dynamic numbers and that the sample size is small, but for a player that we’ve skewered for his forcing of the action, he’s played relatively under control recently and is doing most of the things that we ask of him (now if we could see a bit of an improvement on defense).  For the first time in weeks, Farmar actually seems comfortable and focused on the task at hand.  Whether or not this lasts remains to be seen, but for the heat that Jordan has taken (especially from me), I think it should be pointed out that he seems quite intent on helping this team win another title.  And considering his importance to the team, I’m very happy to see him start to raise his level of play.

And what about Shannon?  Since that same game 5 of the OKC series he’s made 6-11 from downtown.  In 4 of his last 6 games he’s shot 50% or better.  His overall play has been markedly improved as he’s been more patient on offense, making the extra pass more often than not.  Plus, he’s back to making those crowd pleasing plays that get the paying customers on their feet and his bench mates excited.  Those are the types of plays that shift momentum and give your team an advantage.  I mean, when he tried to victimize J-Rich, did you see his teammates’ reactions?  Look at the video and look at the crowd; look at Suns’ assistant Dan Majerle look to the jumbo-tron as the teams break for their timeout.  What we’ve seen from Shannon recently is the mix of athleticism and playing within himself that we were hoping for during the regular season.  Simply put playoff Shannon > regular season Shannon.

And then there’s Odom.  Yes it’s taken a bit longer than expected for him to have on of his signature “wow, he’s really good” games.  I know many thought (including me) that this type of game would come versus the Jazz.  But, the fact of the matter is that he had a big game when his team needed it the most.  It will be forgotten when you look at Kobe’s line or just marvel at LO’s box score, but when he came in the game last night the Lakers were losing 20-15.  Then from the time that he entered the game to the end of the first period the Lakers outscored the Suns 20-9 and never looked back.  Odom changed that game last night even more than Kobe’s terrific third quarter did.  Plus, Odom’s been the leader for the Lakers second unit.  He’s been the player that has told his mates that they need to play better.  He’s been the one that has offered criticism of this group so guys like Kobe or Fish or even Phil hasn’t had to say as much.  When you listen to the other guys talk about Odom they all understand how important he is to the team and what he brings to the group to help make them successful.

However, with this praise comes a higher expectation that they will continue this level of play.  We all understand that this series is not over and in order for the Lakers to prevail, the bench will need to continue to pull its weight.  So, with that in mind I hope to see that continued commitment to controlled aggression and the running of our sets.  If Farmar and Shannon can control the game from the back court and not force the action it will go a long way towards winning this series.  They’re likely to continue to be matched up with Dragic and Barbosa and if they can play that Suns duo to a draw they would have more than done their jobs.  And from Odom, I hope to see him continue in his current attack mindset.  Even more so than the Utah series (where he was mostly matched up with Millsap), there is no one in this series that can really guard Odom effectively.  If he’s working off the dribble and then attacking the glass he can be the third most important Laker in this series and be a catalyst for a series win.  Here’s hoping this group keeps up their recent good play.  ‘Cause if they do, the Suns will be hard pressed to win more than a game in this series.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns Game 1 NBA Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles

THE BLOGS

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: Gregg Popovich touted the Suns improved defense. Everyone was talking about it. That’s how they were finally going to get over the hump — be just good enough on defense to go with an amazing offense. The Lakers blew that defense up. They blew right by it from the perimeter and right into the heart of the Suns defense. The Lakers drove the ball right down the middle — literally, slashing down the center and into the paint all night long. It was the heart of their surprisingly easy 128-107 win.

From Rob Mahoney, Pro Basketball Talk: Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals made one thing abundantly clear: unless the Suns are able to come up with some truly remarkable performances, the Lakers will win this series. L.A. is so talented and so long that they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt in almost every regard, and barring a transcendent performance from Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix will lose.

From Henry Abbot, Truehoop: Here’s a nice little video analysis of the many points Kobe Bryant scored in the third quarter. The give-and-go with Pau Gasol was the highlight, but do not ignore the artful avoidance of the charge as he scoots around the defender at the rim, finishing with the left hand. A lot of basketball is seen as being about power, but in finishing, there’s a lot of value in having a light touch. It’s almost like ballet. Other assorted observations from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals:

From Zach Harper, Hardwood Paroxysm: There are plenty of things to talk about in Game One of a Lakers blowing out of the Phoenix Suns. Kobe Bryant went off in a very scary way for Suns fans. David Arquette somehow became the post-game story. Andrew Bynum’s knee was tested and rested. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown not only looked like NBA players throughout most of their time on the court but they actually looked like they were ready to help this Lakers team hoist up a 16th banner. And Pau Gasol proved that he’s most likely the deadliest post player in the NBA. However, none of that was as important as the playoff sighting of Lamar Odom.

From Phillip Barnett, Talkhoops: Both the Lakers and the Suns went into Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals as one of the hottest remaining playoff teams. The Suns were coming off of an impressive sweep over the Spurs and the Lakers’ sweep of the Utah Jazz was equally as impressive. It was widely believed that the early minutes of Game 1 would give insight into which team could be able to continue inspired play into a third playoff series. Tonight, this was night the case.

From Mike Trudell, Basket Blog: For the 11th time in his storied playoff career, Kobe Bryant scored 40 points while leading the Lakers to an impressive 128-107 victory over Phoenix in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The home team’s steady all-around effort on Monday at STAPLES Center also featured major contributions from Lamar Odom (19 points, 19 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (21 points, five assists), but it was the snarl of the 2009 Finals MVP that set the tone. “Kobe kind of controlled the whole game,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “When he’s in the zone like he is tonight, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

From DexterFishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: The Phoenix Suns tonight suffered what Wall Street types refer to as a “market correction.” A few blowouts over an injury-depleted Trail Blazers team in the first round, followed by a second-round sweep of a Spurs squad older than the city of San Antonio itself, engendered irrational exuberance among Suns fans, not to mention a series of shaky hypotheses about how Phoenix would overwhelm the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Suns play defense now! A rested Steve Nash would abuse Derek Fisher! Grant Hill is the ideal defender to slow down Kobe Bryant!

From the K-Bros, Land O’ Lakers: With about 3:40 remaining in the third quarter, Kobe Bryant found himself stuck in the right corner, unable to get off his shot. He moved the ball up the right wing to Derek Fisher, who immediately whipped the ball inside to Pau Gasol at the mid-post. With Robin Lopez on his back, Pau executed a perfect no-look bounce pass to a cutting Bryant, who rose to finish at the rim, absorbing a late push- literally- from Channing Frye for the bucket and a little value add in the “and-one.” Kobe dropped the freebie, and the Lakers were up 86-72.

From Sam Amick, NBA Fanhouse: Before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Houston small forward Shane Battier sent Phoenix small forward Grant Hill a series of lengthy text messages. They were, in essence, a digital CliffsNotes version of how to guard Kobe Bryant from Battier. Houston’s heady player has slowed the Lakers star more than most and was offering statistically-based assistance to the savvy veteran who was now charged with that assignment. Forty Bryant points and one steamrolling Lakers win later (128-107), it was clear the message didn’t get through.

From Eric Freeman, The Baseline: Lakers 128, Suns 107: Well, this one got ugly pretty fast.L.A. picked apart Phoenix’s defense in the kind of fast-paced game that stereotypes suggest would help the Suns. Yet the Lakers owned Game 1, proving that even with their immense size advantage they’re capable of successfully playing multiple styles. The Suns played badly enough that you can see them coming back in the series, but this was not a good start.

From Eddie Maisonet, Ed The Sports Fan: Name one team in the last 30 years that has won an NBA Championship without having an elite set of big men on the team? Did anyone come up with the 90’s Bulls? That is the only acceptable response to that question. We can go back into the annuls of history and you will not be able to find another team without a dominant frontline that won an NBA title. So unless MJ comes back from that hot tub time machine and drags Pippen and a less mercurial Phil Jackson coaching him, it isn’t going to happen again this year. Can you come up with another squad? Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Cue the Jeopardy music please…thanks.

From Eddie Maisonet, SLAM Online: I’ve been wanting to write this article for months, but to be honest I haven’t had the nerve to write it. You’ve got to have some nerve to write an article where you compare one of the most talented, all-around teams of all-time in the ’86 Celtics to one of the more mercurial and loquacious very good teams with flashes of great ’10 Lakers. There’s just one problem…these two teams are the mirror images of each other.

From Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Entering the series, I was most concerned about how the Suns were going to match up against the Lakers’ length inside. While Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol certainly made their presence felt, an old foe was largely responsible for torching the Suns in Game 1: Kobe Bryant. As John Hollinger predicted, Kobe was the man who couldn’t be stopped, showing no effects of getting fluid drained from his knee earlier this week by exploding for a 40 spot on 13-for-23 shooting to lead the Lakers to a 128-107 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

From Seth Pollack, Bright Side of the Sun: That was a good old-fashioned ass-kicking and boy did it suck being here for it. The Lakers were hitting shots, the Suns were flat. The Suns were scoring, but the Lakers were scoring more. Kobe went nuts. The Suns went, oh crap. A truly uninspired way to start the series, but still only one game. Just keep repeating that. It’s only one game. It’s only one game. Can Kobe keep hitting contested shot after contested shot and get to the line as well 12 times as well?

From Justin DeFeo, Sir Charles In Charge: Kobe Bryant once again proving he is the baddest man on the planet and in the third quarter of Game One of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, Bryant point on a display of offensive efficiency and mastery. Bryant’s quarter (21 points, 7-10 FG’s, 6-6 FT’s) help shut the door on the Suns and give his Lakers a 1-0 lead in the series. Analysis provided in video below:

THE PAPERS

From Mark Heisler, Los Angeles Times: Thanks for coming, Phoenix Suns. Oh, that was just Game 1? In the good news for the Suns, the Western Conference finals are still best-of-seven, so this series didn’t end Monday night… appearances to the contrary in the Lakers’ 128-107 romp. Or is that the bad news for the Suns? As Steve Nash said afterward, “We’ll see….”They’re a lot bigger than us, and they’re probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on.”

From Lisa Dillman, Los Angeles Times: Shane Battier meant well. Really. The Rockets’ forward, two times a member of the NBA’s all-defensive team, had some time on his hands and got to thinking about his buddy Grant Hill taking on the heavy assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference finals. So Battier sent off an e-mail. There is some debate as to its length — Hill says it was short, most definitely not the five pages mentioned by TNT’s Doug Collins. “You can’t believe everything you hear,” Hill said, smiling.

From Kevin Ding, Orange County Register: Phil Jackson had just finished yet another pointless group interview about his uncertain coaching future. It was Alvin Gentry’s turn to meet with reporters in the hours before Jackson’s Lakers blew out Gentry’s Suns on Monday night. The easy-going Gentry produced probably the most entertaining pregame head-coach interview in Western Conference finals history, candidly and generously handling a variety of issues – including applauding Steve Nash’s counterpunch to Jackson’s jab about Nash carrying the ball.

From Jeff Miller, Orange County Register: They already were leading by 19 points and hadn’t trailed in nearly two hours of real time. They also were shooting close to 60 percent overall and on the verge of giving Game 1 of the Western Conference finals a stunning eight minutes of garbage time. That’s when Shannon Brown tried to demonstrate just how easy all this seemed to be for the Lakers. By not just dunking over Phoenix’s Jason Richardson but by jumping over him, as well. “I didn’t look at the rim until I was in the air,” Brown said. “If I had looked at the rim earlier, it would have been one of the most spectacular plays ever.”

From Vincent Bonsignore, LA Daily News: Lamar Odom is going to like the Western Conference finals. So is Pau Gasol. And if Andrew Bynum can ever get his right knee to cooperate, so will he. For that matter, anyone who Suns’ power forward Amare Stoudemire is guarding – and we use that term very, very loosely – is going to enjoy this series against Phoenix. Stoudemire might be a lot of things – offensively gifted, a physical beast, blessed with a body straight out of Gold’s Gym – but what he’s not is a good defensive player. In fact he’s downright terrible, and the Lakers exploited that weakness time and again Monday in their 128-107 Game 1 victory at Staples Center, using most of the first half to feed the ball to whomever Stoudemire

THE MAJORS

From J.A. Adande, ESPN’s Daily Dime: Since Kobe Bryant refuses to leave the past behind when it comes to the Suns, nor can he escape it, it’s impossible not to frame Game 1 of these Western Conference finals in the context of where things stood the most recent time the Lakers faced the Suns in the playoffs, three years ago. In 2007 Bryant felt trapped on an inferior squad, one that quickly bowed out to the Suns in the first round while he spent his final postgame interview issuing an icy demand that the front office do something. With Bryant gone, LeBron James turned the playoffs into his own “American Idol” moment, turning in that virtuoso performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Soon thereafter Bryant began his Radio Free Kobe tour of making trade demands over the airwaves.

From Adam Markazi, ESPN.com: So you think you should know the Lakers by now, don’t you? You think after watching them play about 100 games from the preseason to the postseason you should know their tendencies, their habits and their routines. At this point they should be like that relative who’s always 15 minutes late and never pays his share when you go out to dinner. You don’t turn your back on them, but you learn after a while to show up 15 minutes later than you’re supposed to with a couple of extra bucks in your pocket. You simply adjust your expectations based on their repeated actions.

From Mark J. Spears, Yahoo! Sports: A week had passed since Kobe Bryant had done anything substantial on a basketball court, and when he walked onto the floor early Monday evening, a bright yellow sleeve covered his troublesome right knee. A report earlier in the day said fluid had been drained from Bryant’s knee, the first alarm in Lakerland that something could be amiss. After the Phoenix Suns twice knocked Bryant to the floor and he was slow to get up, the question was fair to ask: Would Bryant’s injury limit him too much for him to be effective in the Western Conference finals?

From Randy Hill, Fox Sports: As dedicated followers of the NBA, we’ve all been exposed to a recent episode of witness tampering. The star of this case is The King, LeBron James, who, while on the way to what was supposed to be his at-last coronation, was taken down at least one peg by the rabble from Boston. A ballyhooed Game 5 swoon created much unrest in the basketball nation, and his Game 6 failure to conquer the Celtics rendered his loyal subjects completely flabbergasted.

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So much for rust.

After both the Lakers and the Suns had a week off, one would have thought that maybe the offenses would have suffered.  That maybe it would take some time for both teams for find their rhythm.  That both teams might struggle to make some shots.  Uhh, not so much.  This game was an offensive duel and the Lakers were able to put the ball in the basket in a way that they haven’t all post season and took out the Suns 128-107 to take a one game to nil series lead in the Western Conference Finals.

And since the game was all about offense, you would have thought that the Suns would have the upper hand.  After all, they are the team with the top ranked offense; the team with the nearly unguardable P&R; the team that has the all world point guard, the hammer of a PF, and shooters flanking them on all sides.  And while Nash, Amar’e, and Richardson had good games, the story on offense wasn’t about those players.

The story on offense was how the Lakers played.  The story was the effectiveness of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (and Lamar Odom off the bench – but more on him in a bit).  Much like game 4 of the Utah series, Kobe and Pau combined for big numbers and paced the Lakers on offense the entire evening.  On the night the Lakers had an offensive efficiency of 137.8 and if that number doesn’t astound you, I don’t know what will.

Leading up to this game, the big story was how Kobe’s knee was acting up again and that in recent days he had to have it drained of fluid.  Well, tonight you couldn’t tell there was a problem at all as Kobe went wild with 40 points on only 23 shots.  He made 11 of his 12 free throw attempts and half of his 6 three pointers.  The man was simply on fire and regardless of what Sun tried to defend him, Kobe picked his pots, found his range on his jumper and could not be stopped.  Kobe truly exploded in the third quarter by scoring 21 points in the period and was the catalyst behind the Lakers run that created the gap that the Suns would not be able to overcome for the rest of the evening.  And just to show that he wasn’t just all about scoring the ball, he chipped in 5 rebounds and 5 assists for good measure.  After the game Phil talked about how even though Kobe wasn’t practicing in the week between the end of the Jazz series and the beginning of the WCF, Kobe was still getting in all of his shooting practice and was getting his mental reps on how to attack the Suns.  I think it’s safe to say that, tonight, it showed.

And then there was Gasol.  For months now, Pau has been playing tremendous basketball and tonight was no exception.  Pau made 10 of his 13 shot attempts, scoring 21 points in a myriad of ways – all of them looking easier than what they actually were.  Whether he was beating the shot clock by sinking a contested jumper or gathering in a lob and then shooting a pretty turnaround jumper while falling on his back, Pau was supreme on offense.  He always looked in control and seemed especially determined to attack when he got the ball in his hands.  His favorite player to battle against was Channing Frye as Pau went to work on the Suns sharp shooting big man and attacked him relentlessly whenever they were matched up.  Much like Shaq used to do in playoff series past, it looked like Pau understood the best way to slow down the offense of the Suns’ key reserve was to make him work on defense and Pau succeeded by going at him all night (Frye only shot 1-7 from three and missed his only 2 point attempt as well).

But while Kobe got 40 and Pau only missed three times, the true big time performance came from Odom.  After the game LO said that he’d had a tough first two rounds of the playoffs but that during the break he had a chance to work on his individual offensive game and that tonight he was going to be aggressive and not let the game come to him.  Well, his post game summary is exactly what we saw as our lanky lefty was active from the moment he got on the court – instantly making things happen on offense by making a short shot from in the paint and then a three pointer within 90 seconds of checking in half way through the first period.  All night Odom attacked off the dribble, leaving the Suns bigs trailing him as he extended his long left arm for easy shot after easy shot.  He totaled 15 points in the first half, got 19 for the game and for good measure grabbed a team high 19 rebounds as well (including 7 offensive).  If Odom can perform even close to as well as he did tonight in the rest of the games of this series, the Suns are truly going to struggle to defend the Lakers.

But even though this game was all about offense from both sides (Phoenix also did well for itself with a 113.8 off. rating) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Lakers did do some good things on defense tonight.  Even though Amar’e made 8 of his 13 shots and scored 23 points, more than half his makes came from outside the paint on jumpers.  Plus, on the evening the Suns only shot 5-22 (22.7%) from behind the arc and recorded only 4 fast break points.  And then on the Suns P&R, the Lakers guards (especially Fisher) fought through screens and rode Nash away from his sweet spots while every Laker defender had active hands in the passing lanes forcing bad passes and causing deflections when the Suns tried to thread the needle to cutters and spot up players on the wing.  Granted the Suns still scored the ball well and shot a good percentage from the floor, but the Lakers disrupted their sets more frequently than any opponent has so far these playoffs.  And while the Suns will surely look to make adjustments, it was good to see the Lakers execute their defensive plan and make the Suns miss from deep and while also forcing them to rely on a lot of long made two point jumpers to sustain their offense.

So for the third time in three post season series the Lakers take a 1-0 lead.  And they now get to see if they can extend Phil Jackson’s streak of 46 straight series wins (with zero losses) when winning the first game.  Surely, the future games will be more difficult but in this game the Lakers again showed that their combination of length, agility, and skill are a tough combination to overcome.  Phoenix will definitely need to find a way to crack the code of the Lakers’ long arms and quick feet if they’re to win game two.  And the Lakers are going to need to be ready for cleaner offensive sets from the Suns and subtle tweaks to their offense to get their players the looks that they want.  That said, if the Suns don’t find a way to slow down Kobe and Pau while also containing a suddenly alive Odom, none of it may matter.

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Game day is fianlly upon us.  If we had to wait any longer I would have started linking to YouTube videos of Justin Bieber.  I don’t think  anyone wants that.

Since we’ve covered this series from a variety of angles already, there really isn’t too much else to say besides it’s time for the Lakers to play their best ball and see where that gets them.  However, since this is a game preview I thought I’d share a few other X’s and O’s on the Suns and some other things I’ll be looking for tonight:

*Injuries are a topic of interest, but I don’t think they matter at this point.  Yes Bynum’s knee is bothering him, but that is nothing new.  Yes Kobe’s knee was drained, but I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t the first time that has happened this year.  The Lakers are just going to have to deal with whatever limitations injuries are imposing on their players and move on.  This is why depth is important and this is why coaches put in schemes to help counteract those limitations.  There will be games where the players are not 100% and it’s on those nights where adjustments must be made.  I expect the coaches will respond accordingly tonight and react with a pre-established plan to whatever scenario plays itself out.  Basically, no excuses.

*Besides playing circa 2008 Boston Celtics level defense, there are no defensive schemes created to defend an on his game Kobe and firing on all cylanders Gasol.  And I think it’s fair to say that Phoenix doesn’t play that caliber defense.  But, what Phoenix can do is throw in defensive wrinkles to try and disrupt the Lakers offensive sets.  Look for the Suns to front the post, deny passes to wing, blitz ball handlers, and play some zone defense.  The Lakers have had a week off so I’m hoping that none of these strategies are too effective, but we’ll get to see tonight.  From my perspective, the Lakers must focus on doing the little things in their offense to counteract these types of maneuvers.  So, I’ll be looking for good, hard screens off the ball, crisp passing, and the ball moving to the corner to make entry passes more flat and easier to execute.  Against the zone, I hope to see the Lakers execute from the strong side so that the Suns defenders must play in man principles within their zone.  When the ball is on the weakside, three Suns can guard two Lakers and that numbers advantage will limit post entries and cut off driving lanes.  But in the end, what I’m looking for is attacking basketball.  Make Phoenix prove that they’re a better defensive team.  Make them guard the entire court by being perfect in their rotations.  And then make them prove that they can defensive rebound as a team by crashing the offensive boards hard.  I’ve been saying that the Suns look to be improved on the defensive end, but tonight I’m actually looking for proof of that against the Lakers.

*We’ve talked a lot about the Suns’ offense but there are two things that we have yet to really discuss.  First is the “Steve Nash treatment” and deploying it on the player whose name it carries.  Several years ago, Kurt coined this phrase to describe the defensive scheme where Nash is made into a scorer by staying home on the Suns’ shooters in a way that invites Nash to shoot the ball more than he normally would.  I expect to see the Lakers employ this scheme tonight because if Nash is getting double digit assists while still scoring 18+ points, the Suns are tough to beat.  However, if Nash is scoring in the high 20’s to low 30’s but his assist numbers are low the Suns offensive machine will sputter and not find its rhythm.  This is a long used technique from the Lakers and I think we’ll see it tonight.  For the second point I’ll let commenter Franky explain something he saw when looking at the Suns’ P&R:

In watching the Kevin Arnovitz video and others with regards to the Suns P&R, there’s one thing that sticks out to me. If you watch the clips you’ll notice it also. When Amar’e is the screener, he will almost never touch the man he is supposed to be screening. In the situations where he rolls to the hoop (he does this most of the time, as opposed to hang and pop), he’ll begin to roll before the opposing guard even passes him. The Spurs let him get in to the lane for a Nash pass way too easily.

If the Lakers decide to play strong on the ball when the screen comes, they can run right through most of them since they are weak screens at best. This will force Amar’e to stay home and actually set the pick with the guard running into him. This will ultimately slow his roll to the basket. Of course this easier said then done, and Nash will adjust to any way you try to defend him. But by making things a little more difficult on Amare, I think it will slow down probably their most potent offensive weapon.

I agree with what Franky’s saying and it will be interesting to see if the Lakers take this approach when defending the Suns’ P&R.  If we look back to the Finals vs. Orlando, the Lakers did an excellent job of fighing through screens and making Howard hold his ground when setting picks.  This slowed down his roll to the rim and allowed the defense to rotate to the paint in anticipation of of the dive.  If the Lakers can successfully bottle up Amar’e and make him less effective on his dive this will make Nash go to option number 2.  Mind you, Nash is more than willing to go to that option, but at that point it will be on the Lakers to rotate to shooters or to reset their defense in anticipation of another P&R.  If the Lakers can take this approach and make it work, the Suns will be working deep into the clock against the best defensive team that they’ve faced this entire post season.  In those scenarios, I think the Lakers have a good chances of securing stops.

*Speaking of Amar’e, he loves to get the ball at the left elbow and drive hard to his right hand and then explode to try and finish at the rim.  So, I’d love for the Lakers to force STAT to his left hand, be aware of his reverse pivot back to his right hand, and make him finish over extended arms.  If he doesn’t make his initial shot also understand that his ability to quickly execute a second jump for the offensive rebound is a strong suit and is something the Lakers need to be cognizant of and box him out after challenging that first shot.  It will also be imperative that the Lakers gang rebound on their defensive glass because Phoenix is a good offensive rebounding team on both interior shots (because of Amar’e) and on long rebounds from their missed three point attempts.  So, not only must the Lakers collapse the paint with their bigs to go after the ball, the Lakers guards/wings must also close down the FT line to gobble up those long boards off missed jumpers.

In the end, the Lakers won the regular season series against this team for a reason – the Lakers are the better team.  That said, this Suns team is on a roll right now and their confidence is sky high.  Guys like Frye, Richardson, Hill, and Dudley are playing better all around games than at any point during the season.  To beat this team tonight (and in this series) the regular season effort will not be enough.  That said, if any team understands that point, it will be these Lakers.  These Lakers have been to two straight NBA Finals and are the defending champions of the league.  These Lakers are led by the best coach of his generation and a surly superstar that can taste a 5th championship.  Based off all the evidence that I’ve seen from this team over the past several seasons, the Suns will not be taken lightly.  So to all us fans, just enjoy the ride that begins tonight.  The WCF are finally here, it’s time for the games to take center stage.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles

THE BLOGS

From Silver Screen and Roll: So, it’s been a long road since the onset of this season, and along that road much has occurred. Injuries, shooting slumps, hot streaks, team-wide lethargy. A plethora of things have happened. So, now, while we’re bored off our asses waiting to get back to basketball – I’m thankful for the rest to our players, but this break is mind-racking, and it is pathetic that simply due to TV contracts, a series where one contestant advanced well after we did starts before our series – it seems as good a time as any to look back at the members of this Los Angeles Laker squad and take a look at their progression (or regression) throughout the season. It shall certainly be an intriguing exercise to examine how individuals have performed in comparison to preseason expectations.

From Land O’ Lakers: Steve Nash is capable of putting the game on a string if allowed. Beyond the need for a solid team defensive scheme, one more strategy teams employ for controlling Nash is to make him work on the other side of the floor. It’s no secret the two time MVP isn’t a lockdown defender. Saturday at practice, Derek Fisher was asked if he would look to be aggressive offensively against Nash. Yes, Fish said, it’s important to put pressure on him, but he and teammates can’t get so wrapped up in running Phoenix’s PG they start making poor choices. That would take the Lakers out of their offense, and likely serve to fuel the Suns.

Practice Report from Land O’ Lakers (with video): After a week of waiting, players seem to be running out of answers to questions we’re running out of ways to ask. The rest has been welcome, no question. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum got one more day each of much needed rest, for example. But at this point I’m fairly sure everyone just wants the games to start. I know I do.

From NBA Fanhouse: When Rudy Tomjanovich goes golfing now, all of his senses are in working order. He sees the lush fairways and greens, smells the grass, feels the sun, hears the peace and quiet that wasn’t on his course so many years ago. “I was so into the job that I rarely saw the other part of life, and I had some revelations that were shocking — like the fact that the weather in Houston was nice in the winter,” said Tomjanovich, whose 13-year coaching career with Houston and the Lakers ended in 2005.

From NBA Fanhouse: One day this summer, Derek Fisher might need to stop by Kinko’s and make all those decisions. What type of font does he want on his resumé? What tint of paper? Or maybe not. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard will be a free agent this summer. But he wants to stay where he is, and not have to send out any resumés. Talking to Fisher, you get the idea the chances are a lot higher he’ll be back if the Lakers win a second straight NBA crown.

From The No Look Pass: It was 2007. The Phoenix Suns eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round for the second year in a row. In the summer, Kobe Bryant infamously demanded a trade. The trade never happened. The Lakers are now appearing in their third consecutive Western Conference Finals. And guess who’s going against them? The last West team to eliminate them from the postseason: the same Suns. These two teams are completely different now. The Lakers are the top dogs in the NBA while the Suns have a different cast of characters now save for Amar’e Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Leandro Barbosa. This promises to be one hell of a series.

From Basket Blog: With L.A.’s health being among the few malleable things from practice-to-practice in a six-day span without games, Phil Jackson was asked by a reporter after Sunday’s session how his team was coming along from that standpoint. “We’re good,” he said. “We’re as good as can be.” Most notably, Jackson’s statement didn’t exclude Andrew Bynum, who did not participate on Sunday but suffered no setbacks from his run in Saturday’s practice.

THE PAPERS

From the OC Register: Phil Jackson has now won more playoff games with Kobe Bryant than with Michael Jordan. Jarring to hear, hard to believe … and inspiring to understand. That’s how much redemption we can find with people – even people who drive us crazy (as Kobe drove Phil) or people we think don’t give a crap about us (as Phil left Kobe thinking). Even on the sunny Southern California pier of paradise, thick icicles hung from their relationship. So Bryant and Jackson predictably parted ways in 2004, so sick of each other that neither cared enough even to bother breaking off the icicles to backstab.

From the OC Register: It’s easy to forget how young he is, partly because we’re always looking up to him – literally – and partly because his four-year contract pays him the same amount we’d earn only after working 725 years! Sorry, we’re probably not going to last that long, although these NBA playoffs just might. But then Andrew Bynum starts talking, and we’re reminded that, back in a different era, he’d only be nearing the end of his rookie season.

From the Los Angeles Times: Phoenix Suns series has plenty of intrigue, even for an NBA scout who is home for the summer with his family after a laborious season of games and travel. Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is Monday night at Staples Center, and this West scout said he’ll watch every game. “I would watch this series because it’s a matchup of two different styles,” the scout said. “It’s the three-point shooting and pace of play by the Suns and size and length of the Lakers.” The Suns are a fun team to watch play, perhaps even the most entertaining one.

From the Los Angeles Times: Finally, there will be a game. The Lakers haven’t played since completing a sweep of Utah a week ago, but the circumstances are more considerable, the results more weighty when they begin the Western Conference finals Monday against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center. They’re four victories away from a 31st appearance in the NBA Finals, but they’ll get there only if Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum shake off knee injuries that have basically kept them off the practice court the last week.

From the Los Angeles Times: The Lakers huddled up at the end of practice Sunday with Coach Phil Jackson detailing the final game plan for the team’s upcoming Western Conference finals series against the Phoenix Suns. Lakers forward Lamar Odom described the contents of Jackson’s discussion as “nothing different than he usually says,” with forward Pau Gasol adding the conversation entailed a “little bit of both” strategy as well as how to mentally prepare for the Game 1 showdown on Monday. “We have a report and we talk about making sure you understand that,” Jackson said. “But the reality is reaction. It’s about getting yourself ready to react and play. You can do all the strategizing you want to do. If you can’t make the appropriate reactions, then you’re going to have trouble. We hope they feel that impulse tomorrow.”

From the Arizona Republic: During the seven-day break, Steve Nash went to the park. A 3-year old boy approached him with great curiosity. He wanted to know why a grown man was wearing a bandage on his face. Nash told the child that he bumped into someone’s elbow. “He said, ‘What’s his name?’ ” Nash said. “I said, ‘Tim.’ And then he ran away.” The reaction tickled Nash. Such indifference will be hard to find going forward.

From the Arizona Republic: Suns coach Alvin Gentry said the long layoff between the end of his club’s second-round sweep of the San Antonio Spurs and the start of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers might be a “blessing in disguise” for the Suns. Question is, are the Lakers benefiting from an equally well-disguised blessing?

From the New York Times: If eight days off before the start of the Western Conference finals on Monday seemed interminable, then leave it to the Lakers, who if they are not always able to provide drama never fail to deliver a story line. So, moments after Los Angeles had polished off undersize and undermanned Utah in four games, Kobe Bryant sneered when asked if he was looking forward to the next morsel on his team’s plate — the Phoenix Suns, another undersize if not undermanned team the Lakers feast on. “What do you think?” Bryant hissed. “You already know the answer.”

THE MAJORS

From ESPN.com: After a six-day layoff, the Lakers are finally set to start their series with the Suns. Coach Phil Jackson said that squaring off against some unfamiliar faces would be a welcome sight after the intense amount of intrasquad scrimmages caused things to “get a little bit feisty” during the time in between series. “We had some decompression,” Jackson said. “We have to build the pressure up again to meet the expectations of an opponent that’s geared up and ready to go.”

From Yahoo! Sports: Kobe Bryant has barely touched a basketball in a week, giving his gimpy ankle and arthritic finger time to heal. That purplish, jagged gouge over Steve Nash’s right eye also should be one week less ghastly by tipoff time in the Western Conference finals. Although both stars play a beautiful game, Bryant and Nash realize postseason basketball is rarely pretty, and they wouldn’t expect to escape the postseason without a few ugly souvenirs of the playoff grind. After both teams got a week off to rest and recalibrate, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers will attempt to reach their third straight NBA finals when they take on the Phoenix Suns, starting in Game 1 on Monday night.

From TIME: After the Los Angeles City Council passed legislation banning the city from doing any further business with the state of Arizona because of its new law targeting illegal immigration, some Los Angelinos are hoping that the Los Angeles Lakers will get behind the cause. In a bit of serendipitous timing, the Lakers are about to face an Arizona team, the Phoenix Suns, in the NBA Western Conference Finals, starting Monday. Obviously, it would be absurd to expect the Lakers to boycott their series with the Suns. But as the representatives of an area with the largest Hispanic population in the country, could the Lakers take some kind of stance, symbolic or otherwise, against a law that the NBA Players Association has already called “disturbing?” Especially after the government of the city it represents has passed a bold measure? “The Lakers are critical to continuing the momentum,” says Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was four years old.

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Over the past week we’ve tried to give as much insight as we could on the upcoming WCF match up with the Suns.  But, in order to get more of an insider’s perspective I exchanged emails with Michael Schwartz of the excellent Suns blog Valley of the Suns.  Michael was kind enough to answer my questions on topics such as the Suns defense, Steve Nash’s longevity, and who he has winning the series.  When you’re done here, you can go read the answers I provided to his questions over at his site (represent us FB&G’ers well).  Thank you to Michael for taking the time.

Recently, much has been said of the Suns’ improved defense.  I mentioned it myself in my preview of this series of when the Lakers have the ball.  However, some question if the improvement is real or if it’s exaggerated.  What have you seen from the Suns on that side of the ball?  Are they a better defensive team than earlier this year?  Than in years past?

They certainly are better on both counts, but then again that’s not saying much. One of the biggest differences is that Grant Hill (believe it or not) has stepped up as a legitimate wing stopper in these playoffs. Andre Miller didn’t do much when the Suns switched Hill onto him after Miller shredded Richardson in Game 1, and Ginobili was terrible from the field (a combined 4-for-19) in two of the games of the series thanks in large part to Hill. Getting Robin Lopez back should also help a lot. He’s without question the Suns’ best interior defender. He defends the paint and can at least put a body on Bynum/Gasol better than anybody else on this roster. The other big difference is the bench. While Nash and Amare will never be confused with all-world defenders, the bench unit defends very well across the board. It’s kind of the Suns’ defensive lineup. There’s also been an attitude adjustment. From Day 1 Gentry has preached taking pride in defense, and the Suns have bought in. Stoudemire has talked about defense being fun for the first time in his career, and Hill has spoken about how the Suns actually talk about needing to get stops in huddles. That might sound obvious for most teams, but that’s not exactly how a D’Antoni huddle used to go.

It’s been reported that Robin Lopez will make his return in this series.  What are your expectations for him in this series considering he’s coming off an injury and hasn’t played since late March?

Suns people have said it all along, if you’re expecting Robin Lopez to be your savior then you’re in trouble. But he will certainly help. Being that he hasn’t played in a game since March 26 I expect some rust, particularly at the offensive end, but the Suns don’t need him to score. Offense is always a bonus with Lopez. I do expect some of that rustiness to translate into a propensity to pick up quick fouls (a problem for Lopez to being with), but I think he’ll definitely help the Suns on the boards and be one of their better options on the Lakers’ bigs. I do question how many minutes he can play effectively, though.

You asked me if I thought Kobe was still in his prime. That question got me thinking about Nash and his continued strong play after many had expected him to start to decline by this point in his career.  How much longer do you think he can perform at this level?

I really think he can play at a high level like this for two more years, at which time he will be 38. Nash just enjoyed the best season ever for a 35-plus point guard bar none, and aside from a blip in stats during the first half of 2008-09 when Terry Porter slowed things done, he hasn’t slipped from his 2004-10 prime despite turning 36 back in February. What he’s doing is really unprecedented, certainly from a statistical standpoint but also from the fact that he’s the No. 1 guy on a conference finalist at 36 despite having never before reached the Finals. Nothing Nash does surprises me at this point, and I think he can still be this guy for another couple years and possibly still an effective player a few years after that as the transition to the Dragic era begins.

Speaking of Nash, everyone understands that he and Amar’e are what make this team go; they’re the stars and get much of the praise when discussing the Suns’ success.  However, who would you say is the next most important player to the Suns?

Jason Richardson. When he scores 20 or more points, the Suns are 31-4 this season, including 5-0 in the postseason. The reason is because, like you said, you know that Nash and Amar’e will play like stars every night. When the Suns get that third star offensively, they’re just deadly, especially considering they are normally flanked by two more shooters that you can’t leave open. When J-Rich is hitting his threes and very involved in the offense, the Suns’ offense is virtually unstoppable. Another name to keep in mind: Jared Dudley. It doesn’t always show in the box score, but according to advanced stats guru Wayne Winston, the Suns are +95 points in 234 minutes with Dudley in and only +4 in 246 minutes when he’s out. Of course, some of this has to do with the fact that they are terrible with Jarron Collins and he didn’t play much with Dudley, but that’s still a staggering statistic to me.

When I’ve discussed this series, I’ve mentioned that I think the combination of the Lakers big men and Kobe will put enormous stress on the Suns defensive schemes.  Do you agree with this sentiment?  Is there a particular match up that concerns you the most?

I think those guys put enormous stress on anybody’s defensive schemes, and I absolutely agree with that sentiment as it comes to the Suns. Really I’m most concerned about Gasol. Amare and Frye are obviously better on the offensive end, and Amundson might be too small to do a good job on Pau. Then there’s Robin, but we don’t know how many minutes he’ll play or even how effective he’ll be. I’d expect to see some zone principles once in a while as well as some doubling, but unlike in the Portland series when the Suns sometimes just loaded up on Aldridge, you obviously can’t do that against Pau and the Lakers. So yeah, I think defending Pau (and really Bynum and Odom, too) will be a big headache for Phoenix.

On the flip side of that coin, what match up do you have the most confidence in?

I’m confident that the Suns will bait Ron Artest into shooting threes, and you know how that often turns out. What the Suns have done really well defensively in the first two rounds is forcing the players whom they want to shoot the ball to beat them. Against Portland that meant containing Aldridge and Miller but letting bench players and their weaker starters shoot it. Against San Antonio that meant loading up on Ginobili and forcing Jefferson and McDyess to take jumpers. In that same vein I would expect Artest (and really Fisher, too) to get some jump shots. If Artest is feeling it then the Suns are screwed, but I’d certainly rather see that than easy hoops for Pau and Bynum.

Finally, who do you have advancing to the Finals?  And as a bonus, who do you think is coming out of the East?

Well, the easy answer is I think the Orlando Magic will be in the Finals. They’ve steamrolled everybody so far, and I just don’t see any way that Boston is good enough to beat them four times (not that I thought the Celtics would take down the LeBrons either, of course). At the risk of being skewered for  homerism, I’m picking Suns in 6. A lot of the advanced stats favor the Suns (which is why Hollinger and Winston are taking Phoenix in 6 as well), and the Suns are playing as well as anybody in the league right now, and that was without Robin Lopez. They play so well together as a team and have such great chemistry. Then there’s the fact that Nash and Hill know this could be their last chance at a Finals and the fact that teams naturally don’t possess that same killer instinct after winning it the previous year. All that makes me thing the Suns will pull the upset.

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions.  His insight on the Suns will surely help us when looking at the upcoming games in the series.