Behind enemy lines with Forum Blue & Gold

There’s been enough days between the time the Western Conference Finals were set and now for Suns fans to learn everything they didn’t already know about the Los Angeles Lakers …. and we still have another weekend to go before this thing finally tips off Monday night in Hollywood.

But to really get the inside scoop on all things Lakers I sent over some questions to Darius Soriano, who runs the fine TrueHoop Lakers blog Forum Blue & Gold. Soriano discusses the state of the Suns-Lakers rivalry, Kobe and revenge before predicting the series in this Q and A.

Also, check out a Q and A I did with FB&G in which I answer questions on the series.

Do you consider Suns-Lakers anything of a rivalry?

I know that a lot of Lakers fans do, but personally I don’t.  I must say that when D’Antoni was coaching the team and Phoenix employed Raja Bell and Tim Thomas that the Suns were a team that I didn’t like very much.  But I wouldn’t quite call it a rivalry because I think that term is mostly used for teams that are both at the top of their games and duke it out over several seasons or if there is a historical aspect to the matchup that gives those teams the added edge when they face off.  I would say that both the Suns and Lakers have rivalries with the Spurs, but not with each other.  However, let’s match up in the WCF for a couple more seasons and we’ll be cooking then.

Do you think think Kobe is still in his prime?

I’d say Kobe is at the tail end of his prime.  That said, I think he’s such a good player, so well conditioned, and such a student of the game that the end of his prime will last much longer than most players.  When I see Kobe, I think of guys like Jordan or Karl Malone or Stockton in that those guys played high caliber basketball until their late 30’s.  Obviously Kobe is a preps-to-pros player and we’ll see if that means an earlier decline — maybe at 35-36 rather than 38-39 like those other guys — but I do believe his dedication to his craft will keep him elite for several more seasons. I think his recent injuries (especially his knee) are a concern, but as he ages I believe he’ll be able to compensate for his declining athleticism better than most athletes due to his evolving nature as a player and his cerebral approach to the game.

Should the Suns be more worried about Kobe when he’s in killer mode or when he’s getting everybody involved?

That’s a tough question because over the past three seasons I think those modes are meshing better than they have than at any other time in his career.  Kobe’s been showing a great ability to keep defenses honest by setting up in certain positions of the court (pinch post/elbow area) where tough decisions are required and defensive schemes are put to the test.  For example, Kobe averaged 5.8 assists against the Jazz while scoring over 30 points in each game.  He did a lot of work from the extended low block and either got himself a good look or accepted double teams and then made the proper pass.  Right now, he’s a very tough cover as he’s patient but aggressive.  Sure, there is still the fear that Kobe will go into “hero” mode, but we’ve seen less and less of that as he’s gotten healthier over the course of the playoffs.  I know that didn’t really answer your question, but Kobe is still an elite talent and the Lakers’ other players can beat teams (especially Gasol), so I don’t know if there a version of Kobe to fear more.

Some of the Lakers have talked about this being a “revenge” series for what happened in 2006 and 2007. Do you buy that?

I do somewhat.  Kobe and Odom were on both of those teams and even though those guys broke through last season to win a title, this series could be seen as unfinished business.  I think the series in ’05-06 was especially painful for that group, what with the 3-1 series lead that ended up being a defeat in seven games.  I know that’s the series that still bothers me as a fan.  Not so much because of the result (the Lakers were the 7th seed), but because of how close the Lakers were.  Ahh … forget I even said anything.

I know Bynum is a little banged up. How does that knee injury of his limit him or do you expect him to be full bore going into the series?

To answer your second question first, I think Bynum will be limited for the rest of the playoffs.  As for how his injury affects him, he’s definitely not as mobile and his lateral movement is compromised.  He’s also shown less explosion on his finishes around the basket and less lift after making his initial move on the low block.  All that said, he’s gutting it out and still doing good things in his minutes.  He’s rebounding well and protecting the paint on defense.  He’s also been pretty active on the offensive glass and is still able to use his big body to set screens in the Lakers’ early offensive sets.  I should say, though, that I do expect Bynum’s minutes to decrease in this series in favor of Odom.  I’d expect Drew to be in the game with Lopez/Collins and some of the time on Amar’e, but that Odom will play a lot against Frye and Amundson.  I expect Pau to be at 40+ minutes each night — a load that he can handle, by the way.

How does Ron Artest fit into this series? Are the Lakers still worried that the next blowup could be right around the corner?

I think Ron will be used as a stopper on defense for either Hill or Richardson and then as a post up player/slasher on offense.  It remains to be seen if Hill or Richardson will guard Kobe, but assuming it’s Hill this will give Ron a chance to play against Richardson who (in my opinion) isn’t the best defender.  On defense, I think Ron will step up to contain either one of the Suns’ wings and may even guard Nash for some possessions (to what level of success remains to be seen).  As for the “next blowup,” that’s actually not something I fear.  I’ve mentioned this a few times this season, but Ron’s respect level for Kobe is higher than I ever imagined (and I thought it was healthy already — even after the Houston series last year).  So, I don’t think Ron could bring himself to really derail this team’s hopes for a title.  Also, I know that Ron comes off as crazy or “out there,” but from the people that I talk to he’s actually a pretty self-aware person that knows what he’s doing more than what he’s given credit for.

Derek Fisher is obviously not the player he once was. At this point is he a liability for Los Angeles or do you still trust his clutch factor at this point of the year?

I’ve been a Fisher defender for a long time and I continue to support him as a player on this team.  I value his contributions, and in these playoffs he’s had a renaissance of sorts, so on a personal level I feel like my faith has been rewarded.  That said, I’d be a dummy not to acknowledge that he’s a player in decline and that there are several ways that he can be viewed as a liability.  In the end, I think most Lakers fans could at least agree with the sentiment that besides Kobe, Fisher is the player you’d most want taking that open jumper at the end of the game, but at the same time you don’t want to see him in isolation trying to get that key stop on a speedy guard.

The Suns’ three-point shooting is a huge key to the series to me. What has made the Lakers so effective at defending the long ball this season?

I think it’s the Lakers’ combination of length and quickness across the roster.  The Lakers’ bigs are good at protecting the rim, and that allows the wing players to play closer to shooters on the perimeter.  It also helps to have Kobe and Artest as your defensive wings (though if you ask Lakers fans they’d tell you that Kobe can get caught over helping and leaving his man behind the arc).  Also, with big men like Gasol and Odom — two players with good size and agility — even the bigs get out to contest jumpers when the scheme calls for them to rotate.

A lot has been made about how the Suns possess a better bench than the Lakers. Are you concerned about this advantage or is talking about benches overblown?

I’m concerned, but only to a point.  In part of our series preview at FB&G, I wrote about the benches of each team, and I think that Phoenix’s ability to go 10 deep is something that will surely affect this series.  However, there are two things that I think should be pointed out: 1). With a big man rotation of Bynum/Gasol/Odom, those units where the Suns play Dudley/Amundson at PF and/or Frye at C will be tested by having to defend the post and rebound against legitimate big men (there are no Bonners’ or McDyess’ on the Lakers), and 2). I wonder how healthy Sasha Vujacic is because he’s a player that is familiar with Dragic as they’re both Slovenian.  I know the second point seems a bit far fetched, but Phil is notorious for assigning players a specific matchup in a series and having them focus all their energy on just that one player.  If Sasha is good enough to go, I’d bet we see some of that matchup and I’m interested in seeing the results.

Who ya got and in how many?

I typically don’t predict series because I’m a person that is hopeful about a team’s success and not one that likes to say “this will happen” with any sort of definitiveness.  However, for the sake of this post, I’d say that the Lakers win and that it will be a six-game series.  I truly respect the Suns, but in the end I think the combination of the Lakers’ size and Kobe will prove to be too much for the Suns to win four games.

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