The NBA playoffs are all about matchups, which will hold true more than ever when the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers square off in the Western Conference Finals.
The biggest questions entering this series are 1) How will the Suns handle the Lakers’ twin towers of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol both offensively and defensively? and 2) Who will have the defensive assignment on Kobe Bryant?
The Lakers have their fair share of concerns as well, however, with Phoenix’s never-ending line of shooters coupled with the inside game of Amare Stoudemire. But It’s hard to have an answer for two seven-footers and the best closer in the game, to go along with a playoff-tested veteran point guard, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound defensive specialist and the versatile Lamar Odom.
Needless to say, the Suns will have their hands full. So how will they match up with the reigning champs? Here is a breakdown of the individual battles we will see between the Suns and Lakers come Monday and beyond:
PG — Steve Nash vs. Derek Fisher
These two wily veteran point guards have had their fair share of battles over the years, and nothing should change this time around.
Nash has proven how badly he wants to win from the moment the playoffs began. From his 33-point performance against the Spurs in Game 1 to his boxer-like, one-eyed gem to close out the series, the 36-year-old floor general has put the Suns on his back and carried them to the Western Conference Finals.
But Fisher is the epitome of a playoff point guard and should make things fairly difficult for Nash. While his biggest value is on the defensive end, Fisher has been dialed in from distance as of late.
The 35-year-old has drilled 1.9 threes per game in the playoffs, and is doing so at a 42.2 percent clip. His 20 points were integral in the Lakers’ Game 3, one-point win over the Jazz, and if he is shooting the ball that well against the Suns, it’s just one more weapon Phoenix needs to worry about.
Nash has been fairly average against Fisher in four games during the regular season — 13.8 PPG, 9.0 APG, 3.3 TO — but he has kicked it up a notch this postseason. While Fisher’s recent shooting surge along with his playoff experience is huge for the Lakers, the two-time MVP has the upper hand in this matchup.
SG — Jason Richardson vs. Kobe Bryant
There is so much concern about the Lakers’ size and length, but they still have this guy named Kobe who is pretty damn good. Grant Hill has been the Suns’ defensive stopper thus far in the playoffs, but expect the Suns to use his size and length against the bigger Artest rather than Bryant.
In their last meeting the Suns went exclusively with Richardson on Bryant when he was in the game. Jared Dudley will play the role of the Kobe-stopper when he’s on the floor, but the majority of the defensive responsibility lies in the hands of J-Rich.
But the fact is, Kobe is going to get his. He will score upwards of 25 points in almost every game this series so J-Rich needs to make him work on the defensive end.
It’s no secret that he holds the keys to the Suns’ success, as the Suns are 31-4 when he goes for at least 20, but he averaged only 8.8 points on 31 percent shooting from the field and 14.3 shooting percent from three against the Lakers during the regular season.
He’s been scorching hot all playoffs, however, and his 21.9 ppg playoff average is third amongst players left in the playoffs, behind only LeBron and Kobe. If he can continue to fill it up then the Suns have a chance to be in every game.
SF — Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest
Artest no longer jacks it up 20 times a game now that he’s the third or fourth option, but he’s found a role as an occasional threat offensively to go along with his defensive prowess. He went for 20 points and 16 points against the Jazz, so he can still put the ball in the hole, but his offense is limited to spot-up threes and garbage buckets.
His versatility and size on defense allows him to guard everyone from Nash to Amare, but expect him to be stationed on Hill for most of the game.
But Hill gets most of points in transition or on mid-range pullups, so I don’t expect Artest to limit him too much offensively.
PF — Amare Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol
Gasol’s fine-tuned post game is clearly a concern for Phoenix, but Amare’s quickness and explosiveness should be an even bigger worry for the Lakers. They bottled him up to the tune of 2-for-15 shooting in their first regular season meeting, but Stoudemire made sure that wasn’t a reoccurring theme and proceeded to drop 29 and 16 on the twin towers in the regular season finale.
If Bynum isn’t clogging up the paint, Amare should go to work on Gasol. The Spaniard is a very good defender and shot blocker, but it will be tough for him to keep up with STAT once Amare faces up and puts the ball on the floor. On the other side of the floor, Gasol hasn’t been much of a factor offensively against the Suns — 14.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG — but he’s been stellar in the playoffs — 20.2 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG.
This is probably the must-see matchup of the series, but I give the edge to Stoudemire as he’s simply too quick and explosive for Gasol, if he has room to operate that is.
Advantage: Amare Stoudemire
C — Robin Lopez/Jarron Collins/Channing Frye vs. Andrew Bynum
It is looking more and more likely that Lopez will be ready for Monday, but the question then becomes: How big of a role will he play?
You could still go with Collins as a starter, but with Lopez back in the mix it would make sense for Collins to not even see the floor. Frye could get the nod, but that might mess up the chemistry he has with the second unit. Regardless of who is starting, they will have their hands full with Bynum.
Where he hurts the Suns most is in offensive rebounding and on the defensive end. With that said, the Suns need to keep him off the offensive glass and lure him away from the hoop defensively. Aside from maybe Richardson, Frye is the wild card in this series. If he can get it going from deep, Bynum has to come out and defend, which gives STAT room to work.
If the Lakers are able to pack the paint, then Nash has no passing lanes and the Suns will have to live on the perimeter. But if Frye can make Bynum defend the three-point line then the Suns will have the spacing to get into a rhythm offensively. So while Lopez will obviously be key in neutralizing the Lakers’ size, it is Frye who may be the most important Suns center.
Suns’ bench vs. Lakers’ bench
Where would the Suns be right now without their bench? Dudley has been huge all playoffs, Goran Dragic single-handedly stole Game 3 against the Spurs and Leandro Barbosa has even showed some signs of life lately.
Lamar Odom is the catalyst of the Lakers’ bench, and with his size and versatility he’s oftentimes been the difference maker against the Suns. But aside from him and Shannon Brown, the Suns have the clear advantage in the bench category.
Advantage: Suns’ bench