Sizing up the Lakers-Phoenix matchup
The Lakers have a well-deserved day off today, knowing there will be plenty of days to practice before their West Finals matchup with Phoenix begins next Monday. Hey, even if the NBA's interest in this drawn out schedule has more to do with dollars and cents than worrying about the team's well-being, the Lakers and Suns will gladly take the extra days between games.
That means there shouldn't be any reason fans of the L.A. Times Lakers blog aren't fully prepared with what to expect. We're currently in that stage where everyone wants to talk about the upcoming series (that could be a different story by this weekend). So while you take delight in seeing Cleveland and Boston beat up on each other in the Eastern Conference semifinal, after the jump is a rundown of the pros and cons the Lakers face entering their matchup with the Suns.
What a difference a series makes. While many of us in the media, included myself, wondered how Bryant would cope with his numerous injuries against Oklahoma City, the solution really just entailed constant treatment. Though there was the occasional column or two that wrongfully suggested this is the mark of Bryant's decline, there's no question injuries affected his game. But with getting constant treatment on his right index finger, left ankle and right knee, Bryant's elevation, quickness and willingness to drive to the bask have all increased. It's resulted in Bryant scoring at least 30 points in five consecutive games. With Bryant having a full week to heal even more, don't be surprised if he drops 40 points a few times this series.
Size advantageOne of the key components to the Lakers' semifinals sweep against Utah entailed the Lakers tremendous size advantage. With Utah without Mehmet Okur (ruptured left Achilles) for the series and Andrei Kirilenko (ruptured left Achilles missing the first two games, the Jazz had little to counter the Lakers' talent in the post, featuring Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. In fact, the three scored 163 of the team's 437 total points in four games. They grabbed at least 10 rebounds apiece in the first two games, a feat that hasn't happened since the 1985 Portland team accomplished it in a playoff matchup against Dallas. And their double teams in Game 3 led to strong shooting performances from Ron Artest and Derek Fisher, both whom scored 20 points on seven of 13 shooting.
If the Lakers' history has anything to do with it, their size should prove advantageous against a team who lacks any seven-footer in the starting lineup. Bynum scored 26 points and Odom came close to a triple double in the Lakers' 121-102 victory Nov. 12 against Phoenix, despite missing the services of Gasol (right hamstring). In the Lakers' 102-96 victory March 12 over Phoenix, Bynum (18 points) and Gasol (15 points) represented two of the fives players who scored double figures for the Lakers.
Considering, Bynum will have an extra week to get treatment on the lateral meniscus on his right knee, he shouldn't experience the kind of dropoff he had in Game 3 (zero points) and Game 4 (six points) against Utah.
MomentumThe Lakers inconsistency made it difficult to accurately assess the team's weaknesses. Rarely this season did an embarrassing loss or a signature victory carry over into the following game. Until now.
With the Lakers winning six consecutive playoff games, they have chosen the best time to be at their peak. And the statistics signify improvement in a number of areas. Consider the improvement from the first-round series against Oklahoma City to Utah in Bryant (23.5 points on 40.8% shooting, 32 points on 52.3% shooting), Gasol (18 points on 53.2% shooting and 12.2 rebounds, 23.5 points on 60.7% shooting and 14.5 rebounds), Fisher (10.2 points on 43.1% shooting, 11.3 points on 46.9% shooting), Odom (7.8 points and 6.8 boards, 9.5 points and 6.8 boards) and Artest (8.2 points on 34.4% shooting, 12.3 poiints on 42.6% shooting).
The team itself also boasted improvements in total offense (95.5 points per game, 109.3 points per game), field-goal percentage (44.2%, 49.1%), rebounding (43.3, 45.5) and blocks (6.3, 7.5).
While the Lakers largely wonder what kind of effort their reserves will bring each night, Phoenix heavily relies on its bench to get the job done.
Jared Dudley's six rebounds made the difference in the Suns' 110-102 Game 2 victory over San Antonio. Goran Dragic scored 23 fourth-quarter points in Phoenix's 110-96 Game 3 win over the Spurs. And in Phoenix's first nine playoff games, Channing Frye made 40% of 45 three-point attempts.
The Suns and Lakers contrasted each other's benches perfectly in Phoenix's 118-103 win Dec. 28 over the Lakers where the Suns' reserves outscored the Lakers' bench, 52-31. In the postseason, the Lakers bench helped sustain leads in Games 1 and 6 against Oklahoma City, but they had trouble holding leads in Games 1 and 2 against Utah, prompting Jackson to put his starters back in the game.
Phoenix's pick and roll offense
The Lakers are no strangers to the Phoenix's ability to run the screen-and-roll to perfection. In a 118-103 loss Dec. 28 to Phoenix, Suns guard Steve Nash buried the Lakers with 13 assists and making three of the Suns' 12 three-pointers. The Lakers largely struggled with rotations that game and sorely missed the presence of Artest, who was in the middle of a five-game absence because of a concussion he suffered Christmas night after the Lakers' loss to Cleveland. Artest will be back for this one, but his defense largely centers on neutralizing a the opponent's top scorer, meaning it'll be more up to the team's rotations to limit any breakdowns on the screen and roll.
Nearly every NBA team struggles with defending the pick-and-roll, but it's an area the Suns particularly well. Even with essentially playing with one eye in Game 4 against San Antonio, Nash still remained effective. He's averaged Nash averaged 17.8 points and 9.0 assists in 10 playoff games, while his main partner in crime, Amare Stoudemire, has averaged 20.5 points per game in the playoffs, though that's a dip compared to his 27 points he averaged point per game in March and April.
Suns' chemistryAnd to think, Phoenix appeared very likely to trade Stoudemire. But as soon as the deadline passed, The New York Times' Jonathan Abrams reported Suns forward Grant Hill stressed for the team to remain in unity.
The concerts and dinners proved instrumental in the Suns winning 22 of their last 26 games. Phoenix has also beaten teams in the playoffs by an average margin 9.8 points, which ranks second in the league behind the Orlando Magic. And each effort against San Antonio presented something new. The Suns outran the Spurs in Game 1. Phoenix outworked San Antonio in Game 2. Dragic stepped in as a contributor in Game 3. And Nash willed his team to win in Game 4, despite playing with a swollen right eye after Tim Duncan struck him with an inadvertent elbow.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries for a reverse layup against the defense of Utah forwards Paul Millsap (left) and Andrei Kirilenko (47) as well as guard Kyle Korver (background) in the first half Monday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant absorbs contact from Phoenix center Robin Lopez on a driving layup in the second half Friday night. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire.
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest (37) tries to keep center Andrew Bynum and Suns power forward Amare Stoudemire separated as they have words during a game this season. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images.