The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers will tip-off their much anticipated series tonight at Staples Center starting at 9:00 PM eastern time on TNT. Both teams have a lot in common this postseason. Both are well-rested and coming off sweeps in the semi-conference finals. The Suns overcame their demons and defeated the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs with ease, while the Lakers made quick work of an injury depleted Utah Jazz team. Both teams are well-coached. Suns coach Alvin Gentry did a masterful job of leading the Phoenix Suns to a record of 54-28 in the regular season and a surprising third seed in the western conference playoffs. Gentry and his staff instilled the run and gun Suns with a more defensive-minded attitude. Thus far, the Suns are only giving up 95 points a game in the playoffs. Credit should also be given to Gentry and his staff for developing the Suns’ bench into one of the league’s best. Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson guided his team to the best record in the western conference (57-25), the third best record overall in the NBA despite injuries to key players such as Kobe Bryant (finger, ankle, knee), Lamar Odom (shoulder), Andrew Bynum (hip, knee) and Pau Gasol (hamstring). This series features two teams with different styles of play. The Suns want to push the pace with Steve Nash leading the way and look for quick shots in transition, while the Lakers want to play inside/out and have Kobe Bryant take the important shots in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. The Suns main advantages in this series are Steve Nash, their strong bench and their 3 point shooting, whereas the Lakers’ main advantage is their championship experience, size, strength and length in the low post.
Game 1 @ Los Angeles: Monday, May 17-9:00pm ET (TNT)
Game 2 @ Los Angeles: Wednesday, May 19-9:00pm ET (TNT)
Game 3 @ Phoenix: Sunday, May 23-8:30pm ET (TNT)
Game 4 @ Phoenix: Tuesday, May 25-9:00pm ET (TNT)
Game 5 @ Los Angeles: Thursday, May 27-9:00pm ET (TNT)*
Game 6 @ Phoenix: Saturday, May 29-8:30pm ET (TNT)*
Game 7 @ Los Angeles: Monday, May 31-9:00pm ET (TNT)*
Regular Season Series: The Lakers took three out of four regular season matchups with the Suns. It should be noted that the three of the four matchups took place before December 28th. The Suns’ lone victory was a 118-103 win in Phoenix on that same night. The Lakers scored 100 points in all their matchups with the Suns.
Suns vs. Lakers Projected Lineups:
Jarron Collins vs. Andrew Bynum (Center)
Amare Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol (Power Forward)
Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest (Small Forward)
Jason Richardson vs. Kobe Bryant (Shooting Guard)
Steve Nash vs. Derek Fisher (Point Guard)
Phoenix‘s key reserves: Channing Frye F/C, Goran Dragic G, Leandro Barbosa, G, Jared Dudley F, Lou Amundson, Robin Lopez F/C.*
*Playing status still to be determined
Los Angeles‘ key reserves: Lamar Odom F, Shannon Brown G, and Jordan Farmar G.
Key Matchup to Watch: Amare Stoudemire versus Pau Gasol will be the most exciting matchup in the series. Both all-stars have their own way of getting the job done. Stoudemire is an athletic player who can stretch the defense with the 13-17 foot jump shot on pick and rolls and will attack the rim with aggression. Stoudemire is not known as a great low post scorer or passer; however he is a great finisher around the rim. When he decides to rebound and play defense, he becomes a tough customer for the opposition. The Suns front office made the decision not to trade him at the deadline and that decision has paid major dividends for a team that wasn’t expected to make it this far into the postseason. He will have his hands full guarding Gasol and Bynum in the post. One could make a legitimate argument that Gasol (18.3 points, 53.6% shooting, 11.3 rebounds in 65 regular games) was the Lakers most consistent player this season despite missing some games early in the season due to hamstring issues. Gasol is a finesse player who has beautiful footwork in the post and can finish around the rim with either hand. When an opponent is able to take away his post moves, he has a face-up game that extends from about 15 feet. Gasol has worked extremely hard to become a better rebounder and a defender the past few seasons and will need to be at his best when guarding a player of Stoudemire’s caliper. Bryant will to go Gasol early and often to exploit the Lakers’ size advantage. Gasol will become crucial in this series, especially if Bynum is hobbled by his troublesome knee.
X-Factor: Lamar Odom is the X-factor in this series for several reasons. At 6-10, he handles the basketball like a point guard, can rebound and post up like a center and shoot the ball like a guard. The Suns have no answer for the Laker’s multi-talented forward. When Odom is playing his game with aggression, the Lakers become very tough to beat. It’s no secret that Odom has a tendency to become unfocused at times, however he has a way of making critical plays at the right time for a Laker team that’s hungry to win another championship. Odom will be asked to look for his shot and help the much maligned Laker’s second unit stay in synch. Odom’s length will be needed for the Lakers to slow down Channing Frye behind the 3 point line. He becomes even more valuable if Bynum is unable to give them minutes due to his troublesome knee.
The keys to victory for Phoenix:
Get Bynum in foul trouble
Richardson must score 20 plus points in every game
Stoudemire must hit the boards hard
Will have to win game 1 or 2 in Los Angeles
Keep Kobe off the free throw line
Speed up the game
Get physical with Gasol
The keys to victory for Los Angeles:
Defend the 3 point line
Get the ball into Gasol and Bynum
Odom must be in attack mode offensively
Lakers bench must provide defense and energy first, offense second
Must make the Suns use more of the shot clock
Can’t let Nash be a passer and scorer
Phoenix will win the series: If Kobe goes into ball-hog mode, Gasol gets hurt, the Lakers don’t take Phoenix seriously, Nash is able to control the pace and the Suns score 115 points a game and the Lakers have their typical second half lapses.
Los Angeles will win the series: If they play with any sense of urgency and they use their size, strength and length to their advantage.
Prediction: I believe the Lakers are too much of a matchup nightmare for the overachieving Suns. The Lakers are capable of sweeping the Suns; however I believe they will win the series in 5 games with Phoenix winning at least one home game.