With two of the potential three games remaining in their series with the Los Angeles Lakers scheduled for the U.S. Airways Center, it's still too early to write off the Phoenix Suns' 2006 playoff chances. But if the Suns do make an unscheduled early exit, becoming the first No. 2 to lose in the first round of the playoffs since the Miami Heat in 1998, it won't be for the reason everyone predicted.
The Suns' Achilles' heel was supposed to be their defense. About a month ago I wrote for SI.com about the defensive slide that took Phoenix from briefly being the NBA's best defensive team on a per-possession basis to being just slightly better than league average in defensive rating.
The Suns' defensive problems without Kurt Thomas in the lineup led many experts to predict that Kobe Bryant, who averaged 42.5 points a game during the regular season against the Suns, and defensive stopper Raja Bell would have a record-setting series. While it would be foolish to minimize Bryant's role in this series in the wake of his heroics in Game 4, which included a shot to send the game to overtime and another to win it, he's averaged only 23.0 points through four games. Remarkably, that is Bryant's lowest-scoring four-game stretch this season; he only had two four-game stretches during the regular season in which he failed to hit triple digits.
Yes, much of the credit has to go to Bryant's teammates, who have stepped up to support him much more consistently than they did during the regular season. Lamar Odom has played the kind of consistent basketball NBA coaches have been trying to get from him since the Clinton Administration; ditto Kwame Brown, though it hasn't been quite that long, and Luke Walton has been a steadying force since moving into the starting lineup.
Overall, however, the Suns have made the Lakers' offense much less effective in this series than it was over the course of the season. During the regular season, Bryant powered the Lakers to an eighth-place finish in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 2.1 more points per 100 possessions than league average. But in the postseason, the Lakers have actually slipped a place to ninth out of 16 teams, scoring 1.5 points fewer than league average:
Team offensive ratings -- 2006 playoffs
San Antonio Spurs
New Jersey Nets
(Naturally, a team's postseason defensive rating is its opponent's offensive rating.)