Western Conference Finals Preview
Unlike last year's seven-game conference semifinals against Houston, this year the Lakers were fully engaged as they swept Utah with their blend of brutish size and quickness up front and the dispassionate crunch-time efficiency of backcourt mates Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. And in this year's other Western semifinal matchup, the Suns -- boosted by a bench that mixes grinders (Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson) with snipers (Goran Dragic, Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa) -- showed more heart and gristle than the Spurs.
How much must Phoenix concede to L.A.'s supremacy in the paint and aim for the upset with a blitzkrieg pace (vintage Phoenix hoops), and how much can the Suns trust their more-rugged-but-still-scrambling style against the NBA's most deceptively physical team? Alvin Gentry's ability to find the right balance between the Suns' run-and-gun weaponry and their resourceful counterpunching will determine where on the continuum this series will fall between Lakers blowout and classic.
Lakers won 3-1
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Kobe Bryant vs. Grant Hill. From Portland's Andre Miller to San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and now Kobe Bryant, the 37-year-old Hill (pictured) is steadily ascending the levels of difficulty in order to attain his black belt in defensive stoppage this postseason. Miller and Ginobili were the brains and ignition behind their respective teams' half-court sets, and Hill's ability to shut them down was vital to Phoenix's victories in both series. Gentry would be crazy to waste Hill on Ron Artest, and if the Lakers opt to put Kobe on Jason Richardson, having to find the cross-match on the fly should favor the faster-paced Suns. Nobody stops Kobe (ask C.J. Miles), especially with a week's rest for his finger and other assorted injuries and the maturity with which he's been picking his spots to dominate. But his half-court offense increasingly has been about wiles and footwork -- much like Miller's and Ginobili's -- and Hill has the length, experience and court IQ to disrupt his physical and mental rhythms.
Lakers: Lamar Odom. Odom's defensive versatility makes him the all-purpose handyman against a 10-deep Suns team full of positional "tweeners." (Odom and Shannon Brown pretty much are the Lakers' bench.) Odom and Kobe are the Lakers' best bets to try to blanket Richardson -- the devastating sidecar on the Steve Nash-Amar'e Stoudemire pick-and-roll, who has shot 51.5 percent from beyond the arc this postseason. Odom's length allows Phil Jackson to stick him on three-point-shooting center Frye and keep Pau Gasol where he belongs, defending Stoudemire in the low block. For that matter, if the Lakers are left with Odom caught in a switch against anyone from Nash to Amar'e with the shot clock winding down, it's not an automatic two or three points for the Suns. And at the other end of the court, Odom's offensive grace and skill could be problematic -- and foul-inducing -- for Phoenix's aggressive forwards off the bench, Dudley and Amundson.
Of course, the less complimentary reason Odom is an X-factor is his inconsistency. If he's in one of those all-too-familiar funks -- early foul trouble, clanked free throws and simply being uninvolved overall -- it is a big bonus for Phoenix.
Suns: Jared Dudley. The Suns have more X-factors than a theater marquee in the red-light district. Can center Robin Lopez heal enough from his back injury to provide any low-post resistance against the Lakers' big men? Will Stoudemire's newfound commitment to defense (a vital component of the team's post-All-Star-break upgrade) remain steadfast in the face of L.A.'s mammoth, talented front line? Can Frye's prowess from the perimeter keep Andrew Bynum on the sidelines? Do Dragic and Barbosa have enough juice to embarrass the comparatively slower and less confident backups in the Lakers' backcourt?
But the emblematic X-factor on these new Suns is Dudley, who is Raja Bell on Red Bull, a banger-swingman who tilts the floor on defense with his careening, aggressive physicality and spreads it at the other end with his deadly three-point shot (45.8 percent during the regular season) and penchant for crashing the weakside for offensive rebounds. If Phoenix is getting overwhelmed in the paint, Gentry could decide to have Dudley leave Artest and double-team hard on Gasol and Bynum. In any case, expect more than a few moments when Dudley is spinning away from a successful play with his fist raised in triumph and that maniacal gleam in his eye. He has a habit of finding, and attacking, the solar plexus of his opponent.
The Lakers are the known quantity here. Unlike the Suns, Bryant, Jackson, Gasol and Fisher know exactly what it takes to be champions, and it's reasonable to expect they'll approach this series with sufficient perspective and professionalism to stack another building block on their legacy.
That said, Phoenix is a compelling long-shot pick. The Lakers thrashed them three times during the regular season because Richardson was 3-for-21 from three-point territory and Frye was 4-for-18 over three games. Richardson missed plenty of open looks during their regular-season meetings, and it's hard to believe that will be duplicated given his recent accuracy. Frye, too, should make it more difficult for the Lakers to play Bynum, who averaged more than 32 minutes per game while torching Phoenix for 17.8 points on 61.2 percent shooting in those four regular season meetings.
But the sentiment for the Suns goes beyond the numbers. The competitiveness of Nash has never burned brighter. Stoudemire finally has a clue about defensive rotations, kick-outs on double teams and even keeping his temper in check. The bench has a rough-and-ready identity, and Gentry has manipulated all the pieces with a deft, encouraging touch. Phoenix hasn't lost two in a row since late January and can't psychologically endure two decisive losses in L.A. to open the series. If the Suns' confidence is intact heading back to Phoenix, this could be a whale of a series. Lakers in seven.
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