May Madness: The NBA’s Final Four – Western Conference
From sixteen to eight and now down to four, the NBA playoffs have whittled the playoff teams down to just the championship contenders. The expected (Lakers, Magic, Cavs…er nevermind on the Cavs) and the unexpected (Suns, Celtics) have gotten us to a Conference Finals that may be one of the most entertaining that we’ve had in years.
In the Eastern Conference, the Magic blitzed through the first two rounds to reach the Conference Finals. Their opponent in the Celtics played a much tougher opponent in Cleveland than Orlando faced in the first two rounds combined, so who has the advantage?
Out West, the Lakers were expected to make their third consecutive Conference Finals, so this is definitely not where they expect the road to end. The Suns were a squad that almost nobody picked to go this far and are a confident group. So who is the favorite, the Lakers with their length or the run and gun Suns?
So what are we going to see in the Finals? A 2009 rematch (Lakers-Magic) or a 2008 rematch (Lakers-Celtics)? Or will the Suns shock the basketball world and get to the Finals? We started with the Eastern Conference pick yesterday, now let’s move out West for the Lakers-Suns.
Los Angeles Lakers – Phoenix Suns
In a match-up of two teams that are very familiar with each other, the top-seeded Lakers take on the third-seeded Suns for a spot in the NBA Finals. These teams are now meeting in the playoffs for the fourth time this decade, with the Suns taking two of the previous three series between the two.
While the Pacific Division rivals may have some similarity in the postseason, these are two dramatically different teams from the last time they met in 2007. That was the postseason that changed everything for the Lakers. Kobe demanded a trade after Phoenix knocked Los Angeles in five games, eventually the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol the next year, and the rest is history.
For their part, the Suns are also a different team than the one who knocked the Lakers out way back in ’07. Gone is defensive expert Raja Bell, replaced by Grant Hill. Gone is Boris Diaw, a versatile forward that can do it all, replaced by sharp-shooter Channing Frye. And on board is an explosive scorer at the two-guard in Jason Richardson, who when his game is on makes the Suns nearly unbeatable.
These are two teams that took different regular season paths to the Conference Finals. The Lakers jumped out to the great start in the regular season, opening at 37-11 at the end of January before struggling down the stretch, losing seven of their final eleven games and seeming to stumble into the playoffs.
Phoenix had an opposite ending to the regular season as the Lakers. The Suns were 14-3 through November, but then struggled through January, dropping to 26-21 after an overtime loss to the Bobcats on January 26th. Since that loss something seemed to click with the Suns as they ran off a 28-7 record the final three months of the regular season to clinch the third-seed.
The postseason however brought both of these teams underwhelming starts. Phoenix lost two games to an under-manned Portland team and didn’t look mentally ready to hang with the Spurs in the second round. Well that was until they started playing and swept San Antonio off into the sunset. The Lakers meanwhile limped out to a 2-2 series tie with the Thunder after four games, a series they could have very easily trailed 3-1 after sweating out a Game 2 win at home. Fast-forward to last night’s win and the Lakers have won seven games in a row and seem like the favorites for yet another title.
The contrasting styles of these two teams will be on full display all series long. The Lakers want to come out, slow down the pace, pound the ball inside and fully exploit their size advantage against the smaller Suns. Phoenix wants to come out and run, run and run some more on a Lakers squad that (minus Shannon Brown) lacks explosive athletes who can hang with the Suns once they start breaking out into fast-breaks. This postseason, the Suns are 7-1 in games they score over 105 points, as opposed to 1-2 in games where they don’t.
The Lakers are a very strong defensive team who will impose their will on the Suns if they an slow the game down, and if Phoenix wants to stay in this series they cannot allow that to happen. The only chance they have is to run the Lakers out of the gym, neutralizing L.A.’s bigs who will not be able to keep up on the fast break. Take a look at Phoenix’s fast-break points in their losses:
Game 1 vs. Portland: 4 points
Game 4 vs. Portland: 4 points
Game 1 vs. Los Angeles: 4 points
In the three losses the Suns have scored a total of 12 points. In their eight wins? Phoenix has 107 points for an average of over 13 per game. Clearly, the Suns are at a great advantage when they can get to the open court and run on their opponents.
The Suns also have one more advantage over the Lakers, and that is in bench play. At least that’s what the general consensus was before Game 1 when the Lakers bench outscored the Suns 44-35. However Phoenix still has the advantage, with scorers like Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa who all are capable of dropping over 20 points in any given game. They must play well if the Suns are going to have a chance in each game.
The Lakers biggest strength in this series is their size advantage. Simply put, there is no team in the league that can keep up with the Lakers bigs when they are all playing well. With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum starting, the twin 7-footers will give Phoenix fits inside, especially defensively when it will be harder for Steve Nash to get into the paint with two bigs waiting for him.
The wild-card in this series however, is the other 7-footer on the Lakers roster, Lamar Odom. When Odom is on, the Lakers are unstoppable. Just take for example his effort last night, getting a 19-19 and dominating the glass against the Suns in the Lakers blow-out win. If Odom is aggressive every game of this series, the Lakers will make quick work of the Suns and reach their third straight NBA Finals.
Finally, the Lakers ace of spades is, of course, reigning Finals MVP Kobe Bryant. Bryant, who many pundits said was finished when he struggled in the first round, has been on a tear lately, scoring as well as we’ve ever seen him in the playoffs. In each of his past six games, Bryant has gone over 30 points, including a 40-point explosion last night. If Kobe is able to go over 30 tomorrow night in Game 2, he will be the first player in NBA history to go over 30 in seven consecutive games. Even Michael Jordan never went over 30 for six straight playoff games. Take a look at Kobe’s numbers the first five games of the playoffs and the six games since:
First five games:
Kobe: 37-95 shooting, 38% FG’s, 21.8 points per game
Last six games:
Kobe: 71-136, 52% FG’s, 33.3 points per game
Needless to say, Bryant is on a tear unlike which we’ve seen in a long time in the postseason. It’s as if he’s trying to prove to the rest of the world that, yeah Lebron can have the regular season crown, but the playoffs are mine.
Steve Nash (Phoenix) vs. Derek Fisher (Los Angeles) –
Nash is the unquestioned leader of the Suns, averaging over 17 points and 9 assists per game this postseason. Fisher is the only Laker not named Kobe who is unafraid and has the playoff pedigree to take a huge shot in the crunch. Both have little to no defense, but Nash is more effective on offense. Advantage: Suns
Jason Richardson (Phoenix) vs. Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles) –
Richardson is the wild-card for Phoenix, if he can score at a high level the Suns have a chance. Kobe is, well Kobe. Really no need to tell you he’s the best scorer in the league and the most clutch player in the NBA. The Suns can’t guard Kobe. Huge Advantage: Lakers
Grant Hill (Phoenix) vs. Ron Artest (Los Angeles) –
Hill is a solid defender who has had a career resurgence with the Suns, while he may not be a threat to score 20, he can defend Kobe capably (still not enough). Artest is an enigma who, when focused on defense can be the difference between a title contender and favorite. If his shot is on, Phoenix is finished. Advantage: Lakers
Amar’e Stoudemire (Phoenix) vs. Pau Gasol (Los Angeles) –
Easily the best individual match-up of the series. Stoudemire is a beast on the pick and roll who can hit some open jumpers as well. Gasol is lethal with either hand and has one of the best post-games in the league. Stoudemire needs Nash to set him up though, Gasol can go to work on his own. Advantage: Lakers
Robin Lopez (Phoenix) vs. Andrew Bynum (Los Angeles) –
Lopez is coming off of injury, but provides the Suns with size inside. Channing Frye will play most of the minutes at center however. Bynum is dealing with a knee injury that is getting worse, but his size and defense give the Lakers the clear-cut advantage. Advantage: Lakers
Leandro Barbosa/Channing Frye/Jared Dudley (Phoenix) vs. Lamar Odom/Shannon Brown/Jordan Farmar (Los Angeles) –
Barbosa, Fry and Dudley are all threats that can go for 20 in any given game with their outside shooting. While Odom could swing this in the Lakers favor on his own, Farmar and Brown have been too inconsistent this postseason. Advantage: Suns
Alvin Gentry (Phoenix) vs. Phil Jackson (Los Angeles) –
Gentry has done a great job getting the Suns this far, but really there’s no comparison with Jackson. One is a failed Clippers coach, the other has ten NBA titles. Big Advantage: Lakers
Phoenix was as hot as any team in the NBA heading into last night’s series opener against the Lakers. They are at a clear disadvantage at almost every individual match-up and will need a collective team effort to knock of the Lakers.
The Lakers however are a team that is on a mission, as they have proven in winning their last seven playoff games. Phil Jackson will not allow the Lakers team to slip up this close to a title, and with Kobe controlling things in-game, Los Angeles is nearly unbeatable.
If Game 1 was any proof, the Lakers will be able to pound the Suns inside all series long. They have the defenders to run out on Phoenix’s shooters and not allow them to get many open shots, and the paint will be too clogged for Steve Nash to get away with doing what he wants at will. The Suns will put up a good effort, but the Lakers are just too talented, big and well-prepared to lose this series.
Lakers in 5
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/belal_a