Following a slightly rocky first round, the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers each swept their semifinal match ups and will face off in the NBA Western Conference Finals. Kobe Bryant hopes to lead his team into the championship for the second year in a row while Steve Nash tries to help his team keep their six-game playoff winning streak intact.
While many experts expected the Lakers’ main playoff competition to come from the Dallas Mavericks or San Antonio Spurs, the Suns have rolled through the second half of the season, compiling a 22-4 record since March 14. The grit and determination of the Suns can be seen through the swollen eye of point guard Steve Nash.
In the series clinching game against the Spurs, Nash took an inadvertent elbow to the eye from Tim Duncan and had to leave the game in the third quarter. The cut took six stitches to patch up but when he returned, his eye swollen shut, he put up two more three pointers and scored an assist to Amare Stoudemire to put away the Spurs.
On the other side of the court is the defending World Champion Los Angeles Lakers. While Kobe Bryant remains the team leader, a different hero has stepped into the spotlight. In the series clincher against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was Pau Gasol who hit the winning shot. Against Utah, it was Gasol who finished the game with 33 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Lakers to their first ever sweep of the Jazz.
What the Lakers have to do to win: Los Angeles needs to control the tempo of the game. The Suns like to run and gun and, if they want to make it to the Championship game, the Lakers need to slow the game down to allow them to play half court ball. While they have relied on Pau Gasol to win the last two series, the Lakers also need Kobe Bryant to continue pouring it on to win this series. The match ups are overwhelmingly in favor of the Lakers thanks in large part to the dominance of players like Gasol, Bryant and Lamar Odom.
What the Suns have to do to win: The Suns need to control the game better than they did in the regular season against the Lakers. The Suns lost three of four games against the Lakers during the season by an average of 108-101, failing to break 100 in two of their losses. The Suns scored 118 points in the one game they won and they need to keep moving fast and scoring a lot of points to throw the powerful Lakers off balance. The Suns also will rely on their bench, which was important in their series against the Spurs. The Suns averaged 109 points against the solid Spurs defense, so it is not out of the question that they can keep up with the Lakers.
Who to watch:
Kobe Bryant vs. Steve Nash – The two men play different positions and different styles, but it is no secret they are the heart and soul of their respective teams. The Lakers need Bryant to step up and remain a leader off the court as much as he is on it. There were moments during the losses to Oklahoma City that Bryant grew petulant and that hurt his team. He needs to be their emotional leader in this series to give the Lakers the best chance to win. There is no question Steve Nash will be there when the Suns need him most and if they are to upset the Lakers, they need all the heart he can inspire.
Amare Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol – When these teams faced off in March, it was Stoudemire who led in points scored (29) and rebounds (16). When the Lakers needed someone to pull through in the clutch against both Oklahoma City and Utah, they looked no further than Pau Gasol. These two men will be battling the entire series. While Gasol will be called upon to hit the important shots he has become known for this post season, Stoudemire will be asked to defend him. If Stoudemire gets into foul trouble, the Suns’ hopes are in danger. Gasol will be the catalyst of that battle.
Phil Jackson vs. Alvin Gentry – This isn’t Phil Jackson’s first rodeo. Before he led the Los Angeles Lakers to four NBA Championships, he led the Chicago Bulls to six. A win here will inch him closer to increasing his lead as the all-time record holder of NBA Championship wins. As long as he can keep Kobe Bryant focused, that goal remains within reach. Phoenix is Alvin Gentry’s fourth stop as a head coach. His first year as a full-time coach for the Suns has provided him with the best record a team he coached has ever amassed (54-28). His focus in this series is to keep his stars fresh, while utilizing his impressive bench.
Prediction: While the Phoenix Suns have been impressive this season, the Los Angeles Lakers are bigger, stronger and more experienced. While the Suns will keep it close, the Lakers should win the series in 6. The Suns are fast and will keep the tempo closer to their pace but the Lakers already proved in the regular season they were the better team and that won’t change much here.
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