These five points will go a long way toward determining who wins the Western Conference Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers.
1. Defending the Lakers’ length
Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom will give the Suns fits with their length and skill inside. How big of a fit they give the Suns may well determine the winner of this series.
The Suns just don’t have the kind of defenders to match up with all of them. It would help to get back Robin Lopez — Alvin Gentry is cautiously optimistic about his availability — but we don’t even know what kind of shape he’ll be in or if he’ll just turn into a foul machine since he’s been out for so long.
Then there’s the question of if Kobe will try to take games over himself and ignore his big guys down low.
In any case, limiting the effectiveness of the Lakers’ bigs is the Suns’ biggest key to winning the series.
This one goes hand in hand with the first one. The Suns have shown a propensity to yield offensive rebounds in bunches at times this seasons, and they lost most of the games in which they did that.
But the Suns have been the third-best rebounding team in the playoffs — behind Orlando and Boston — averaging 2.8 boards per game more than their opponents, and they’ve been a much better rebounding team with Lopez in the lineup this season. That differential is kind of surprising considering the Suns played a pair of teams in Portland and San Antonio that know how to rebound the basketball.
If the Suns can keep the Lakers’ bigs off the boards, they stand a legitimate chance in this series.
3. The bench
The Suns’ biggest advantage in this series comes from their bench. The Suns boast arguably the deepest bench in the NBA, a unit the Lakers just can’t match.
When both benches are in the game, this is a time when the Suns could be able to make a run. Also, if the Suns’ bench can buy time for the starters by playing the Lakers’ starters tough for stretches like they did against San Antonio’s starters, that would be beneficial as well.
In the San Antonio series, except for in Game 1, a different Suns reserve came in and starred in every game of the series, the kind of contribution the Spurs just couldn’t match. Will that hold true in the Lakers series as well?
One of the biggest advantages I feel the Suns really possess is in the chemistry department, and at least Bill Simmons agrees with me if nobody else.
I can already see the Lakers fans’ comments I will get for this one. I know that chemistry is an intangible trait that doesn’t have any physical bearing on the series. I know that chemistry isn’t going to be able to guard Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant.
But still, you can’t watch this Phoenix Suns team and not know that their supreme chemistry is a big reason why they’re charging into the Western Conference Finals fresh off a sweep of the Spurs. These guys genuinely like each other, they play hard for each other, and one of the biggest reasons this team has been better defensively is because their rotations have been so crisp since they’re typically on the same page.
On the other side, are the Lakers dealing with the Disease of More?
As Simmons recently wrote about that affliction, “You win a title, you get soft and everyone wants more: more shots, more money, more minutes, more everything.”
The Lakers are more talented, so if the chemistry Suns knock off the Dieasese of More Lakers, this could be a big reason why.
5. Win Game 1
We know that the winner of Game 1 wins roughly 80 percent of all series.
But what’s even crazier is that a Phil Jackson team has never dropped a series after winning Game 1. That’s in 46 series all-time, too, so the sample size is huge.
It’s not like the Suns will just stop playing if they drop the first one, but their odds of pulling off the upset will significantly decrease from a historical perspective. Meanwhile, if they win that first one in Staples and regain home-court advantage, this is anybody’s series.