ValleyoftheSuns writers Michael Schwartz, Mike Schmitz and Tyler Lockman pick a Suns X-factor in this series as well as a Los Angeles Laker to fear before giving their predictions on the Western Conference Finals.
Michael Schwartz: The Phoenix Suns have outscored opponents by 95 points in the 234 postseason minutes played by Jared Dudley. They’re up just four points in the 246 minutes in which Dudley sits.
That to me tells you just how important Jared Dudley is to this basketball team. He’s a guy who plays bigger than his box score stats, doing all the little things to win while D-ing up the opposition’s best perimeter guy. In this series that of course means Kobe Bryant, and if Dudley can harass him a little bit in his minutes that will be a huge win for the Suns.
It’s sometimes hard to see, but winning just follows Dudley, and if the Suns do end up winning this series I think he’s going to have to be a big reason why.
Mike Schmitz: All of the talk around Planet Orange is about how the return of Robin Lopez will impact the series. But the real difference maker for the Suns this series will be Lopez’s backup, Channing Frye. Not only is it important for Frye to at least be average against Gasol or Odom, he needs to be locked in from beyond the arc for the Suns to be successful. His ability to shoot the three and space the floor neutralizes the Lakers’ length to an extent, and opens things up for the Nash-Amare pick-and-roll.
“That’s just my job on this team, to create space for everyone else,” Frye said after practice Saturday. If he can do exactly that, the Suns are in good shape.
Tyler Lockman: Jason Richardson. He did it against Portland, and it was invaluable. Richardson has become the Suns’ No. 2 scoring option in these playoffs. Nash hasn’t consistently contributed a lot of points, but he has masterfully run the offense.
Richardson’s performance now becomes key for two reasons. First, they need an offensive boost if Nash is contained. Second, they need someone that can push the Lakers on defense. If Richardson is performing well, the Lakers have to shift some of their focus to him, which frees up Nash and Stoudemire.
Most feared Laker
Michael Schwartz: Kobe is a superstar, sure, but I’m most worried about Pau Gasol. I just don’t know who the Suns have to match up with him, and I think he can be the difference in the series.
“He’s just a really, really skilled guy,” Gentry said. “We’ve got to try and do a good job on him.”
That’s an understatement. Gasol can use his length on tip-ins, and he possesses a polished post game. He’s also a capable shooter, providing Kobe with the second star he’s always needed. Especially with Bynum hurting, if the Suns can find a way to limit Gasol then they’ve got a great chance at winning this thing.
Mike Schmitz: Everyone talks about stopping Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and rightfully so, but the true X-factor for the Los Angeles Lakers is Lamar Odom, especially against the Suns.
“He’s probably the most effective player from a multi-position standpoint that there is in the league,” Gentry said of Odom.
His rebounding, versatility and defense will all be felt in this series, even more so now with Andrew Bynum’s knee getting worse. He can defend Channing Frye from the three-point line, stay with Amare when he attacks the hoop, and switch out on Nash on the pick-and-roll. Not to mention he is versatile enough to play alongside Bynum and Gasol. Kobe will be Kobe and Gasol should be around 20 and 10 every night. Odom, on the other hand, is the wild card.
Tyler Lockman: This is really a no-brainer. Bryant is one of the two best basketball players alive (that debate is for another day), and he has a killer instinct only seen before in some of the all-time greats.
Bryant is a threat on both ends and has the ability to change a game in a matter of minutes. You may think you have a game in hand and Bryant can snatch it away with a few moves. And you don’t stop Kobe, you just limit him as best as you can.
Michael Schwartz: The Lakers are the favorites, as they should be. But the Suns have been the underdogs all season. Nobody expected the Suns to play the Lakers in the postseason unless it was in the first round, but here the Suns are playing their best basketball of the season.
The Suns really trust each other on defense and then on offense they have a plethora of weapons so a defense can’t gear up to stop just one or two things. Then there’s the stellar bench and their championship-quality chemistry. Combine that with a healthy Robin Lopez, an ailing Andrew Bynum and a star in Steve Nash who knows this could be his last shot at a ring, and I’m picking the unthinkable. The Suns have been the best team in the West since the end of January, so why shouldn’t that still be the case when June rolls around?
Suns in 6
Mike Schmitz: As Alvin Gentry said at Saturday’s practice, “It’s a huge, huge task for us to beat these guys.” There is no question that the Suns have exceeded everyone’s expectations and then some. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Grant Hill and several others have been special on the hardwood all season long.
But the Los Angeles Lakers are simply too much for Phoenix to handle. They are long, athletic, well coached and experienced, and they have the game’s best closer — all things that add up to success in the playoffs. I think the Suns will push it to seven games and give the national audience some of the best NBA basketball that they’ve seen in a while, but ultimately the Lakers will fend off the red-hot Suns in Game 7.
Lakers in 7
Tyler Lockman: I was pessimistic about this team from the start, but they really shocked me. They made me — and plenty of “experts” and analysts — look pretty dumb. While I am very conflicted about it, I think this is the end of the line.
The Lakers have Finals experience, an incredible coach and one of the best living players. The way the Lakers pummeled the Jazz — a team the Suns struggled against at times — makes me believe this team has kicked it up a notch. I have to say Lakers in six games. However, I will not be surprised if the Suns prove me wrong again. The Bynum injury, the Suns’ intangible will to win and unseen boosts could lead to a Suns victory.
Lakers in 6