Archives For May 2010

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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.

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There are not enough superlatives to describe Phoenix’s offense.  Explosive.  Dynamic.  Downright Scary.  In our preview of when the Lakers have the ball, I called the Suns O a juggernaut and really that’s a bit of an understatement.  In order to slow down that unit, the Lakers are going to need to show a discipline and attention to detail that they’ve not yet had to show in these playoffs.  Many will try to compare Phoenix to the Jazz in that they’re a point guard oriented team that has a power forward flanking him and they operate a system that is refined and unique.  And while those points are true, underselling the Suns in that manner is a mistake.  Where the Jazz were a fundamental system based off the structured execution of Williams and Boozer, the Suns are an improvisational system based off the creativity of Nash, the hammer of Amar’e and the shooting of everyone else.  Sure, both systems are unique, but one (Phoenix) is based solely off the mind’s inner workings of one of the best passing guards of the past 20 years.  Nash and his ability to control a game is the difference; he’s the player that can make something out of nothing, that can create a passing angle where none exists, the player that sees the court in ways that only the truly great passers have (not to mention his ability to get his own buckets).  Slowing this machine down will take more than what the Lakers have had to give so far these playoffs.  Let’s explore what they’re up against.

First and foremost, the key to the Suns offense is their transition game.  Nash is one of the best in the league at receiving outlet passes on the run and every Suns player (even the ones assigned to rebound defensively) love to get out and fill lanes.  So, the first key to slowing down the Suns will be to literally slow them down.  Nash needs to be forced to go back to meet the ball and the players that run out need to be marked in the open court.  Even when Nash does catch the ball on the move, he needs to be picked up early and forced to change directions (preferably more than once) in order to disrupt his timing and that of his running mates.  This will be easier said than done, but it’s a necessity if the Lakers are to control the tempo against this team.

Also understand that Phoenix’s open court game is counter-intuitive to what the Lakers have faced so far this post season.  Against the Thunder and Jazz transition defense was also a major key, but the point against those teams was to get back and build a wall to defend the paint against explosive guards in Westbrook and Williams.  However, the Suns (outside of Amar’e and sometimes Richardson) don’t run to get to the rim – they run to the three point line.  Every Suns wing player (and Frye) is a capable player from the three point line.  Even a player like Grant Hill (who isn’t the best long range shooter) will run to the corner and then upon receiving the ball will either fire away or attack off the dribble against a closing out defender.  This can’t be stressed enough – the Lakers must mark players in the open court and must simultaneously close down Nash’s penetration while recovering to the three point line in transtion.

But the Suns effectiveness on offense is not limited to run outs, transition basketes, and open court three pointers.  As Phillip states, this team is also a very good half court team:

One of the things that is different about this Suns team compared to Suns teams of the past is how this team is able to operate in the half court. During the Mike D’Antoni “Seven Seconds Or Less” era, they hardly ever ran any real offensive sets even though they had all the tools to be the best S&R team in the league. This year, they are that team with a lot of the credit going to Alvin Gentry…And after watching, and re-watching the last Lakers-Suns meeting (March 12), I have to say I really enjoy what they do.

As Phillip said, the Suns are probably the best P&R team in the league.  This simple play is the foundation for their half court sets with Nash (and Dragic) showing patience and smarts to get every Suns player (including themselves) quality looks at the basket or from the perimeter.  I’ll go back to Phillip to let him explain some of the different options that the Suns use out of the P&R:

1. Just a simple screen and roll where the ball handler takes a screen, the screener cuts and the ball handler gets him the ball. It’s that simple, but they are able to run it so well because of the other two sets.

2. The screen, roll and pull-up. It’s a screen and roll like the above, except after the screener cuts, the ball handler pulls up for a jump shot.

3. Then there is the screen, drive, roll and trailer. This is another option, a little more complicated than the other two, but still a very simple offensive play. When the screen is set, instead of looking to shoot or pass, the ball handler takes the screen and drives toward the basket, the screener also rolls, bringing attention with him. As defenders follow both the screener and the ball handler, a third offensive player cuts to the basket and is fed by the ball handler for an attempt around the basket.

4. Would be similar to the third, except the ball handler kicks the ball out to a shooter instead of a cutter.

But rather than just talk about these options, below are some visuals to show what the Suns do and the variety of looks they create using this action.  Again, Phillip (who put all these clips together) will take it from here:

In this first clip, you see Amare Stoudemire coming up to set a screen for Steve Nash, after the screen is set, Stoudemire cuts to the basket where Steve Nash throws a perfect pass and Stoudemire finishes with the dunk at the rim. As you can see, there is nothing complicated about it, it’s just that the Lakers did a horrible job of defending it.

In this second clip shows a trailing Louis Amundson coming to set a screen on Derek Fisher for Steve Nash. Amundson rolls to the basket, both Gasol and Fisher go with him and Nash pulls up for the three and nails it. Again there is nothing necessarily complicated, there were just defensive mistakes that were made that allowed this play to happen.

On this third clip, you’re going to see Jarron Collins setting a screen on Derek Fisher for Steve Nash. Both Collins and Nash are going to be moving toward the basket as Amare Stoudemire, who is free-throw line extended on the far side, starts moving toward the top of the key. As soon as he gets to the top of the key, he dives straight toward the basket and gets a nice pass from Nash for the easy dunk. This play was set up nicely by Grant Hill starting on the left side of the floor and clearing out to Stoudemire’s side to give the illusion of a two-man game with Nash and Collins.

And while we don’t have a visual example of the 4th option, if you rewatch video #3, you’ll see Jason Richardson waving his arms around calling for the ball at the opposite extended wing.  Nash is quite capable of making that pass as well and it’s those shooters lurking behind the three point line that give the Suns’ P&R the spacing to be effective.  Understand as well that these aren’t even all of the variances that you’ll see in these options.  Phillip’s done a great job of showing us the foundations of this action, but if you check out the video that Kevin Arnovitz has up at TrueHoop, you’ll get even more evidence of the Suns’ diverse attack out of this simple set.  I mean, look at the spacing.  Look at the shot making.  Look at how pin point passes are rewarded with deep threes going in.  This Suns team shot over 41% from three during the regular season and are matching that number in these playoffs.

Now that we have a proper appreciation for what the Suns are capable of, the issue at hand is slowing down this locomotive.  As I mentioned at the top, defending the Suns will take discipline but it will also take a commitment to the schemes that the coaches install.  Again Phillip:

S&R defense is all about decisiveness. You have to decide whether or not you’re going to show or stay back, and when you do decide, you have to be completely into it. There are certain teams where you’re better served not showing (i.e. the Thunder, where you don’t want to give driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and you’d rather him taking a jumper), but this Suns team is one that you NEED to show.

Said another way, our big men are going to need to be active in this series.  They’ll need to “show” or “hedge” on the ball handler in order to impede his progress.  If necessary, they may end up locked on to the ball handler for longer than normal or switching entirely in order to ensure that Nash (or Dragic/Barbosa) doesn’t just go wherever he wants with the ball. Obviously, this points to the Bynum/Gasol/Odom trio.  Are they capable?  I’ll let Kurt sum it up:

Pau Gasol is an underrated P&R defender — he’s quite good — and his play will be central to the Lakers. Odom is right behind that. Bynum is going to see his minutes go down some this series.

I’m with Kurt on this – I expect Gasol and Odom to be key defensive players in this series because of their mobility on the perimeter where, if needed, they can switch onto guards and play them straight up on a limited basis within a possession.  However, Bynum will also be important because he can be the foil at the rim when the Suns play their “big” lineup with Amar’e at PF and either Lopez or Collins at C.  With these combinations on the floor, Bynum will not have to leave the paint as those other players are not offensive threats.  This means when Nash is penetrating or Amar’e is diving to the cup, big ‘Drew can be the man protecting the rim.  Sure, his mobility has been impacted by his injured knee but his height and length remain intact and those traits will serve as a deterrent at the rim.

If you’ve managed to make it this far, understand that as tedious as this post has been, the Suns offense is worth the word count.  Over the course of the season series the Lakers did a good job of containing the Suns.  But these teams only played once after the all-star break (a Lakers win) and that was a game in which Frye didn’t play.  We should also mention that the Suns are rolling right now and that Richardson, Dudley, Dragic, and Hill are probably playing some of their best ball all season.  Slowing the Suns will be a team effort both in terms of how they scheme to stop their sets and how they execute in the other facets of the game – especially when the Lakers have the ball (controlling tempo, limiting turnovers, crashing the offensive boards, getting the ball into the paint on offense).  Remember, the Triangle is an offense that is supposed to promote floor balance and provide an easy transition to playing defense.  If the Lakers can control the ball and play their offense the way that they’d like, it will help their defense.  If they don’t, the Suns will run wild and will get more than enough looks to continue to their dominant play on that side of the ball.  On Monday, we’ll finally get to see how this plays out and honestly, I can’t wait.

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As we continue to wait for the WCF to start, some here are some morning links and fast break thoughts before we get back into full preview mode this afternoon

*Waiting this long for a series to start can be maddening.  I feel like the Lakers haven’t played for a month.  If it weren’t for all the Lebron talk (more on that later), I would have forgotten it was even basketball season.  That said, that’s just us fans.  The players are surely gearing up for Monday and all this sitting around is allowing them to think long and hard about this match up.  And if you’re a Laker thinking about the Suns, does your mind venture back to those playoff defeats of years past?  Mike Bresnahan gives us the skinny on what the Lakers do and don’t focus on from those past match ups.

*We’ll be talking more about this in the afternoon, but obviously a big factor in the WCF will be the three point shooting of the Suns.  They’re the best deep shooting team from the regular season (even better than Orlando) and the Lakers are one of the best defenders of that shot.  Paul Coro of the AZ Republic says something has to give.  Which will it be?

*Speaking of giving, how about doling out some credit to the Celtics?  Sure that sounds strange coming from a Lakers fan, but the C’s won that series versus Cleveland much more than the Cavs losing it.  The team that was too old showed that experience and mettle (and Rondo!) matter and for that I give them their due.  The C’s were the better team and (Via TrueHoop) Bob Ryan is reminding folks of that fact this morning.

*Now for my take on the Cavs and Lebron.  I agree with many that the hype machine was in full effect in building up Lebron James.  And I understand that some of (if not most of) the criticism that he’s receiving is based off Lebron being built up in the manner that he has.  I mean, when you’re proclaimed to be the best and get all the credit in good times you must also deal with a healthy heaping of blame in the bad times.  That said, Lebron is a great, great player.  He’s fantastic.  The things that he’s done so far in his career deserve recognition and praise.  But in the series against the Celtics he ran into a defensive buzz saw.  The C’s were a top 5 defensive outfit all season and that was something that James nor his teammates could overcome.  I think this result shows that Lebron still has things to improve upon in his game.  His lack of a post game hurt him in this series.  As did his relatively average mid-range game.  When Lebron didn’t have the driving lanes and was completely dependent on shooting from outside the paint (or taking highly contested shots from close in) his game suffered mightily.  And while he was still very, very good it was not enough because the Cavs needed “great”.  I think this also proves that system basketball is what wins in this league and not superstar basketball.  What I mean is that the Cavs were built completely on the skill set of Lebron.  He needed to create, he needed to score, he needed to be the fulcrum of their offense.  He was not only the engine, he was the transmission, the starter, and the keys to the car.  And when that is the case, you’re always going to suffer when that player is limited.  Always.  This isn’t to deflect blame from Lebron or to place all fault at the feet of Ferry and Mike Brown.  But, this is a team game where games are won and lost by everyone in an organization.  Lebron needs a more well rounded game to take the next step that his talent level says is available to him.  And his coaches and front office need to better assemble and prepare the team for the times when giving the ball to Lebron and telling him “go to work” won’t be enough.  This was a loss that is on everyone in Cleveland.  And now their fans suffer – and I empathize with that.  Us Lakers fans have seen the depths of these types of losses.  If you don’t agree, go back to the Del Harris days when the Lakers had Shaq, Kobe, Eddie Jones, Van Exel, et al and were getting swept out of the playoffs.  I remember how that felt and those fans in Cleveland are feeling that way too today.  Ouch.  One last note on Lebron – in a way I feel like his career really starts now.  Sure he’s already a veteran in this league, but remember he’s only 25.  And now he’s facing some real adversity.  Sure there were some that questioned if he really was the real deal when he came out of high school, but those doubts were quickly erased in his rookie season.  However, now there are really, substantiated doubts and those concerns are only going to become more entrenched as he goes through his free agency this summer and signs his next contract.  So, with a new number and potentially a new team, it’s time for Lebron to start anew.  Chapter 2 is about to begin and (no pun intended) we will all witness what happens to one of the premier talents this league has seen.  As a basketball fan, I’m fascinated by how this is going to play out.

*So now here we are again with Lebron bounced early and the Lakers still competing for that big gold trophy.  Arash Markazi explores how once again that Kobe/Lebron final is on hold (hat tip to Land O’ Lakers).

*One last note on revenge.  I mentioned earlier that there are surely some Lakers players wanting to satisfy that feeling when playing the Suns.  But I know that there are several fans that want that same feeling over the still alive Celtics.  Personally, in that Cavs/Celtics series, I didn’t have a rooting interest.  But, I know that makes me a minority from that series as many Lakers fans were actually rooting for the C’s in hopes that they’ll advance to the Finals where (if the Lakers can beat the Suns) we’ll get a rematch of 2008.  Let me know in the comments if you’re one of those folks.

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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.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers

THE BLOGS

From Silver Screen and Roll: Ready for an impossible question?  Who’s riding higher right now, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Phoenix Suns? I certainly have no idea, and it’s going to make for one hell of an interesting series.  In analyzing all the possible outcomes, I can’t honestly take anything off the table.   A Lakers sweep?  Behind 21 feet of inside domination and a masterful performance from Kobe Bryant, yeah I could see that.  A Suns sweep?  With a bench playing better than a lot of starting units, an offensive staple (pick and roll) that is right in the Lakers weakness wheelhouse, and the best offense in the NBA, can you really rule it out?

From the Lakers Nation: Jerry West gave Kobe some high praise and called him the “greatest Laker player we’ve ever seen.” He also says Kobe Bryant is the 2nd generation MJ. Check out his interview with Jim Rome!

From Basket Blog: Early on Tuesday morning, we posted a preview of the Lakers – Suns Western Conference Finals, focusing on the individual matchups at each position, and giving L.A. the edge at the shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center positions.  In four regular season meetings between the two teams (3-1 Lakers), no matchup was as one-sided as the shooting guard position:

THE PAPERS

From the Los Angeles Times: First there was the youth of Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, then the brilliance of Utah’s Deron Williams, the reigning “Best Point Guard in the NBA,” at least until an injured Chris Paul gets the chance to fight for the right.
None other than a two-time most valuable player, Steve Nash of Phoenix, happens to be looming on the horizon for the Lakers’ Derek Fisher. Little ‘ol one-eyed Steve, who didn’t let six stitches and a swollen and shut right eye stop him from guiding the Suns to the Western Conference finals. Talk about the trilogy of point-guard terrors.

From the OC Register: The Lakers played the Phoenix Suns once after the NBA trade deadline passed — when the Suns had gotten comfortably settled in with no more concerns about Amar’e Stoudemire getting shipped out. That March 12 game in Phoenix was a good one, with the Lakers rallying from a seven-point deficit to take a seven-point lead entering halftime – then the Suns pushing the other way for an 82-81 lead before the Lakers responded with a 14-2 run. The Lakers held on to win, 102-96.

From the OC Register: We here at Miller Light were watching Celtics-Cavaliers Game 5 when we suddenly were struck by something. No, not the pathetic realization that we’re small-minded enough to be entertained by a 32-point basketball blowout. But rather this: An ultra-talented team folding up in a huge playoff game isn’t just a Laker thing; it’s an NBA thing. How can Cleveland lose by 18, win by 29 and then lose by 32 against the same Boston team?

From the LA Daily News: The Lakers went back to work Wednesday, two days after eliminating the Utah Jazz in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series and five days before meeting the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Monday. Rest, recovery and preparation were the major themes of the day. Getting center Andrew Bynum going again was another topic of conversation. The 7-footer’s production was hit or miss against the Jazz. For instance, he had 17 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2, but then went scoreless with four rebounds in Game 3.

From the Arizona Republic: The scent of disrespect must have hitched a ride on the Los Angeles-to-Phoenix jet stream. No one at Suns practice Wednesday was surprised by the heavy favoritism of the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.  The latest jab came from Bill Plaschke, a Los Angeles Times columnist and ESPN personality who wrote Monday after the Lakers swept Utah that “the Phoenix Suns have no chance.” Ouch. “We love comments like that,” Suns guard Jason Richardson

said. “We invite comments like that.” Since you asked . . .

THE MAJORS

Practice Report from NBA.com (with video): The Lakers resumed practice on Wednesday after a day of respite on Tuesday … most of them, anyway, as Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant took the day off to get treatment on and strengthen respective injuries, while Pau Gasol was sent home with sinusitis. The Spaniard is expected back when the team resumes practice on Friday after another day off on Thursday in what is a rare off week leading into Monday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, while Bynum and Bryant went through rather typical of late non-game-day routines.

From NBC Sports: Toying with the city of Cleveland’s fragile psyche, calling the NBA’s reigning MVP “LeGone” James would just be piling on, rubbing in salt. Besides, that would be predicated on LeBron first being somewhere. For all the numbers, for all the surreal passes and forays above the rim, the most breathtaking young player in the game is still at base camp in the legacy game. LeBron is gazing longingly toward the top of the mountain, where Kobe Bryant is about to plant a flag.

From ESPN Los Angeles: Sweeping the Jazz earned the Lakers six days off before the start of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns. They took Tuesday off totally, they’ll also take Thursday off, and Wednesday’s practice was described as “more mental preparation than anything” by Derek Fisher after the team went through a thorough film session followed by an intrasquad scrimmage (Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum sat out to rest their right knees, and Pau Gasol didn’t play because he was sent home with sinusitis).

From Yahoo! Sports: Kobe Bryant claims his desire for playoff revenge against the Phoenix Suns didn’t even make it back from Salt Lake City. The back-to-back playoff losses in 2006 and 2007 nearly drove Bryant away from the Los Angeles Lakers, frustrated with their direction and infuriated by a mediocre supporting cast. Moments after Los Angeles finished off the Utah Jazz on Monday, Bryant sarcastically said the Lakers would be after “just a little bit” of payback when the Western Conference finals begin next week.

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The Suns are known as an offensive team.  Over the course of the regular season, they had the top ranked offense measured by both points per game (110.2) and in offensive efficiency (112.7).  Said in the simplest way possible, they are a juggernaut on that side of the ball.  However, after throwing the Spurs to the side in a 4 game sweep what’s been getting the Suns a lot of ink lately is their improved defense.  The Suns may not be the most athletic group and they may not possess the most size, but they’re playing disciplined on that side of the ball and are using their smarts to rotate well, contest shots, and then rebound the ball.   And since the Suns have been showing that they are a capable and somewhat improved defensive team, I thought it would be best to start our series preview with what the Lakers need to do when they have the ball vs. the Suns defense.

When looking at the Lakers offense against any opposing defense, there will always be two questions that need to be examined closely: 1). Does the opposition have a player to guard Kobe? and 2). Does the opposition have enough size to defend the Lakers’ big men?  Against OKC and Utah, how the answers to these questions played themselves out on the court were a major factor in the difference between a 6 game slugfest and a 4 game sweep.  In this case, when looking at the Suns, I think it’s fair to say that the Suns have decent options in answering both questions but none that should inherently scare the Lakers.  The odds are that the Suns will deploy either Grant Hill or Jason Richardson on Kobe and then play the Lakers bigs straight up with Amar’e (on Gasol) and (a returning healthy) Robin Lopez on Bynum.  As I mentioned, these options are good but not in the caliber of some of the better defensive players in the league at their respective positions.  Meaning, the Lakers should be able to score on the Suns defense if they play to their strengths.

First and foremost, that means getting the ball into the post.  Both Pau and Andrew will have distinct size advantages inside.  Much like in the Utah series, the Suns front line is a bit undersized compared to the Lakers’ twin 7 footers (though Amar’e/Lopez are more athletic than Boozer/Fesenko).  So, the Lakers will need to work the ball inside and use their big men as the offensive initiators from the low post.  As we’ve seen throughout this season, the Triangle offense is at its best when the ball goes into the post where our bigs can create offense for themselves and others.

However, going into the post doesn’t only mean attacking with our bigs.  As we’ve seen over the course of this season (and was put on even greater display against the Jazz), that Kobe Bryant guy is also a pretty skilled post player.  So going at either Richardson or Hill on the low block should also be a priority on offense.  If Kobe has proven anything over his recent run of 30+ point scoring games, it’s that he’s still very much wanting to get his shots close to the hoop and his work from the weak side pinch post has been a devastating weapon in fueling his offensive success.  When Kobe makes his catch at the elbow against any defender he just has too many options and his game is too versatile to completely stop, so making the Suns choose between single covering him down there or sending the double team is just another way for the Lakers to exploit the Suns D.

But the Lakers’ advantage in size isn’t only limited to taking the ball into the post.  As Zephid points out, another way to beat the Suns on the interior is to go after the offensive rebound after the shot goes up:

One statistical area that the Lakers can exploit is the Suns porous defensive rebounding.  The Suns are the 2nd worst defensive rebounding team in the league with a defensive rebound rate of 70.8.  Only the Warriors are worse, and the Lakers are 9th at 74.4.  However, the Suns are comparable to the Lakers in offensive rebounding, 27.7 for the Lakers and 27.6 for the Suns.  Thus, it is key for us to get offensive rebounds and tip ins, mostly for the points, but also because this will prevent the Suns from getting out in transition for easy scores.

As was the case against Utah, the Lakers must use their advantage inside in as many ways as possible.  I’d love to see the Lakers play volley ball on the offensive glass against Amar’e and co.  And this shouldn’t only be limited to when Bynum and Gasol share the court.  Odom is a very good offensive rebounder and since he’ll likely be in the game marking Frye (more on that match up later in the week), LO should use his quickness and athleticism advantages against Channing to snare the Lakers some extra possessions.

Lastly, the Lakers just need to attack.  Sure, going with a Kobe/Gasol centric offense is always a good bet, but the Lakers mustn’t get too focused on only going at the specific defenders that are guarding those two guys.  As Kwame A. noted in a recent email exchange the Lakers must also:

Make Nash, J-Rich and Amar’e defend:  When they are in man-to-man, we must make these guys exert effort.  With Nash, this may mean posting him up, with J-Rich and Amar’e, we need to also work them on the block, and try to get them in foul trouble.  This will fall mostly on Artest, Pau and LO.

Recently, the Lakers have been much more committed to executing their base offense.  Yes, Kobe and Pau have been featured within the offensive sets, but we’ve also seen much better cutting and screening off the ball and greatly improved ball movement in the half court.  So, if the Lakers can continue in these efforts they’ll be able to effectively go at Nash and Richardson (if they’re on Fish/Artest) by moving without the ball, sliding into open space, and cutting the basket on dives and hand offs to get these other guys on their heels.  The Lakers can also use some of the finer intricacies within the Triangle to get favorable match ups on these players.  For example, we could see more guard on guard screens where Fisher sets a screen on Kobe’s defender that can ultimately either give Kobe some free space or force the switch where Nash (or Dragic) ends up on Kobe.  We could also see more of the scissor cuts from the sideline initiation where after the ball goes into the post, the top side guard (Kobe for example) screens the defender on the corner man (Artest) to get Ron free to either get an open jumpshot or a handoff and drive to the basket against a switching or screened off defender.

In the end, the Lakers offense will be the stiffest test the “improved” Suns defense will face.  The Lakers have diverse threats on both the inside and on the perimeter and have two of the hotter offensive players still alive in post season (Kobe and Pau).   Mind you, the Suns can still throw defensive wrinkles at the Lakers by going zone like they did with good success earlier this year, by fronting the post (ala OKC), or by double teaming in non traditional ways.  However, with the talent level and offensive schemes the Lakers have in place, there should be counters to all of these tactics.  Will the Suns be able to slow the Lakers attack?  This will be very important to their success in this series because as we’ll cover in future parts of our series preview, the Suns won’t be able to simply outscore the Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles

THE BLOGS

From Silver Screen and Roll: I’m man enough to admit it.  I did not see that coming.  My thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s ability (or lack thereof) to compete with the Lakers over a 7 game series are well known.  Those thoughts have been proven correct.  The Jazz lacked the necessary tools to defeat the Lakers.  They just don’t have enough … not enough height, not enough defense, not enough offensive threats, not enough healthy contributors.   They maximize what they have, but even that maximum was never going to derail the champs.

From Land O’ Lakers: Perhaps the toughest thing for players, fans, and media alike during the playoffs is to avoid becoming a prisoner of the moment. Teams can fluctuate wildly, strengths and weaknesses often masked by matchups and the sort of performance blips able to alter the course of a series. They can look incredibly vulnerable one moment, then hoist a Larry O’Brien the next (see Celtics, Boston 2007-08), or look totally dominant but then fall short (see Lakers, Los Angeles 2007-08). All the while, infinite definitive and declarative statements are made crowning or burying a squad.

From Land O’ Lakers: It’s one of the most iconic moments in NBA Playoff lore, let alone Lakers history. On May 16, 1980, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar laid up with an ankle injury and Spencer Haywood suspended, Magic Johnson was asked to take the opening jump at center in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. Magic went on to play every position on the floor. He scored 42 points, snagged 15 boards, and handed out seven assists. Dude was flat out incredible as the Lakers downed the Sixers 123-107 and clinched a title.

From Lakers Edge: Andrew Bynum, injury-prone? Kobe, third in the MVP voting… Pau Gasol loves sushi. An unloaded AK-47 to start the series. Look-a-likes: Fesenko & Sulley from Monsters, Inc. Kobe acting tough after the White photo shoot. The return of the Killer Crossover. D-Will does. I wonder if someone will choke Wesley Matthews like Xavier McDaniels did to his daddy. Kobe shooshing through traffic like a Swiffer. Lamar Odashian, now that’s clever. Jerry Sloan still looks like one tough dude. More Laker Girls.

From Valley of the Suns: For the first time since 2006 the Phoenix Suns are in the Western Conference Finals, but there is no sense of accomplishment yet with this veteran-led group. The NBA Finals is obviously the goal, but a man named Kobe, a Zen Master and a few seven-footers stand in the way. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said it all season long — the Western Conference goes through Los Angeles. The Suns knew that if they wanted a taste of the NBA Finals they would have to dethrone the champs, and they will have their chance come Monday.

From Bright Side of the Sun: I am slowly working my way through the last couple of Lakers games and digging into the numbers. I will have more on that later in the week. Probably with charts and maybe even a graphs. Joy!I will say this, though: I am getting more confident and not less as I get more into the research. I am not the slightest bit impressed with the Lakers sweep over the Jazz.

THE PAPERS

From the Los Angeles Times: Kobe Bryant narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips during Monday night’s postgame news conference. His demeanor had shifted suddenly, from excitement after the Lakers’ 4-0 sweep of the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals, to disdain, his jaw taut, as Bryant reflected on the Lakers’ past playoff failures against the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers lost first-round playoff series to the Suns in 2006 and 2007, something Lamar Odom also brought up after Monday night’s 111-96 victory over the Jazz. “They took us out two years in a row,” Odom said. “Yeah, I don’t forget.”

From the Los Angeles Times: What kept you? Meet the Lakers, the team no one wants to play… now. The sky not only didn’t fall in Lakerdom — although, I’m serious, a little piece hit me on the head — there’s no longer even a cloud in sight. Not that things change fast, but it’s just two weeks since Game 5 in the first round when Kobe Bryant asked why there was so much gloom and doom with the Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder tied, 2-2.

From the OC Register: The Lakers played the Phoenix Suns once after the NBA trade deadline passed — when the Suns had gotten comfortably settled in with no more concerns about Amar’e Stoudemire getting shipped out. That March 12 game in Phoenix was a good one, with the Lakers rallying from a seven-point deficit to take a seven-point lead entering halftime – then the Suns pushing the other way for an 82-81 lead before the Lakers responded with a 14-2 run. The Lakers held on to win, 102-96.

THE MAJORS

From NBC Sports: Let’s see if you’ve heard this one before: The Lakers come out early in the playoffs looking flat, uninterested and vulnerable. The Lakers slowly begin to gain momentum throughout May. Then, when June comes around, the Lakers are playing their best basketball, looking championship-ready and easily erasing the sky-is-falling impulses that surrounded the team early on.

From the Sports Guy: I broke a personal record last week: four playoff games in four nights, in Los Angeles (Game 2, Lakers-Jazz), Phoenix (Game 2, Suns-Spurs), Orlando (Game 2, Magic-Hawks) and Boston (Game 3, Celtics-Cavaliers). Intending to write a recap on Saturday morning’s plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles, I ended up getting sidetracked by the in-flight movie — “Extraordinary Measures” with Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser — and only finished half the column. That led to this exchange when I arrived home:

From ESPN.com: With last night’s 111-96 beatdown of the Utah Jazz, the Lakers put to bed any concerns about extreme vulnerability created by a tough first round against Oklahoma City. A sweep will do that for a team’s image. But if brooming an opponent reinforces a defending champion squad’s credentials, it’s only fair the same respect be accorded to a challenger following suit.

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I know that us fans are champing at the bit to get the western conference finals started.  The Suns represent the organization that bounced the Lakers from the playoffs in back to back years nearly a half decade ago and litterally laid the foundation for this franchise’s trip into offseason hell that I’d rather not even get into at this point.  So, it goes without saying that revenge is on the mind of us fans, and surely on the minds of some of the players that were on those mid-aughts Lakers teams.

However, revenge will have to wait as the Lakers won’t get the chance to face the Suns until next Monday.  After sweeping the Jazz and Spurs respectively, the Lakers and Suns are now on a mini-vacation for another week.  That’s a lot of time off for two teams that have really been playing strong ball.  Which leads me to the question – is there such a thing as too much rest?

I mean, when teams have it going like the Lakers and Suns do, you would think they’d want to get out there and play every couple of days to keep that good feeling going.  Isn’t it possible that the long layoff can hurt one (if not both) of these teams?  Manny P touches on this concept from many angles in the comments:

The biggest problem I see here in the short term is Game 1. Our Laker teams have traditionally been very sluggish after a long rest and this 6 day vacation will make them even more slow. The Suns, on the other hand, have proven to be quick out of the gate. On top of that, our bench has been less than perfect while theirs has been on fire. While I think our starters have what it takes to take us over the hump, I would not be surprised if no team weans consecutive games and the series goes to 7.

Read that again.  There are about 3 different examples of how the rest can both positively and negatively affect each team.  Let’s break down Manny’s comment into parts and explore the concept of rest vs. rust a bit more deeply:

1). The biggest problem I see here in the short term is Game 1. Our Laker teams have traditionally been very sluggish after a long rest and this 6 day vacation will make them even more slow. The Suns, on the other hand, have proven to be quick out of the gate.

This obviously points to how the rest can be a problem for the Lakers.  I tend to agree with Manny in that the Lakers haven’t always looked sharp after a long layoff.  Being somewhat of an aged team that runs a precision based system, they don’t always seem to be fully on top of their games when they’ve been out of action for too long.  And while I can’t speak to Phoenix’s success in these types of situations, their fast breaking/P&R style seems geared to rev itself back up at a moments notice.  Could this be an issue for the Lakers?  Can the Suns really turn their game on after over a week of rest?  What do you think?

2) On top of that, our bench has been less than perfect while theirs has been on fire.

Here is how the rest can actually hurt the Suns and benefit the Lakers.  The Suns players (especially their bench of Dudley, Dragic, and Frye) are playing the best they have all season (or at least close to it).  Will the lay off cool them down?  Will the rest disrupt their rhythm?  As I mentioned above, when a team is playing as well as Phoenix is, do you really want to stop playing for over a week?  As for the Lakers, our bench has been a work in progress (to put it nicely), but they’ve played some of their better ball when they’ve had some time to get their practice reps.  When the Lakers coaches are able to stress the game plan and work on the intricacies of a focussed attack, I think it helps our guys.  So, will this rest help our bench guys fine tune their roles and get a better feel for what’s expected of them in this match up?  Can a greater attention to detail in both the film room and on the practice court help our role players step up their games or is this just wishful thinking?

3). While I think our starters have what it takes to take us over the hump, I would not be surprised if no team weans consecutive games and the series goes to 7.

And what about our starters?  Fisher is 35.  Kobe has 40,000 minutes on his legs and is still recovering from his various ailments.  Bynum is still nursing his partially torn meniscus.  Ron’s been playing with a banged up shoulder and has more tape on his hands (bad thumb, perpetually sprained fingers) than at any point this season.  These guys could use some extra rest, no?  When asked about the potential to get some extra rest after the game, Kobe seemed downright giddy at the notion that he’d get all this time off.  And while these guys aren’t starters, I think we should also mention that the Lakers are still waiting on Sasha to return from his badly sprained ankle and that it looks like Odom (shoulder, knee?) could also use a few extra days off to heal up.  And what about the Suns?  Nash just got his eye busted up by a Duncan elbow.  Couldn’t he use some time off to stop looking like he went a few rounds with Pacquiao?  And then there’s Robin Lopez and his bad back.  Before he went down with his injury he was the Suns’ starting Center and was provding a solid interior presence on defense and on the glass.  Won’t this extra week give him a chance to fully recover and be ready for game 1?

At this point, the rest seems like it will do more good than harm, but you never know.  Athletes thrive on the set schedule that is put in front of them.  Most guys love to get out on the court every other day (or every few days) to play and keep that good rhythm going that only comes from game action.  Will either team suffer because of the rest?  Will the extra time to heal and rest weary legs trump that potential loss of sharpness?  What do you guys think?  Is there such a thing as too much rest?