Game 1 preview: Suns at Lakers

Western Conference Finals Game 1

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Lakers 128, Suns 107

PHOENIX — The wait is finally over.

Both the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers have had over 180 hours to analyze every in and out of their opponent, and now it’s time to see how that preparation translates to the hardwood in tonight’s crucial Western Conference Finals series opener.

But to deem tonight’s game crucial would be an understatement. It’s difficult to say that the outcome of the series all boils down to tonight’s game, but it’s also impossible to dismiss this statistic: Phil Jackson is 46-0 in series’ that he wins Game 1.

Every NBA fan knows that Game 1 sets the tone for the series, but 46-0 is flat-out ridiculous. The Suns, however, aren’t ready to call this a one-game series.

“They have a great record when they win the first game because they usually have a great record and they’re playing at home. We lost to Portland in the first game and we were able to come back,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “It is an important game, but to lose the first game and feel like the series is over, I don’t think we’ll do that, no.”

“I think we’re looking at it as a series, but obviously the way to approach a series is to approach the first game,” added Suns guard Steve Nash. “You’ve got to put everything into the first game, and then after that you put everything into the second game and so on and so forth.”

It’s easy to dismiss the 46-0 statistic as a product of home-court advantage and two guys named Kobe and MJ, but 46-0 is still 46-0, and the only way the Suns have a realistic shot of winning the series is with a stellar performance tonight.

They don’t necessarily need to waltz into Staples Center and dismantle the Lakers, but they do need to play 48 minutes of Phoenix Suns basketball and prove that their playoff run thus far is no fluke, whether it yields a win or not.

So what does Phoenix need to do to make that happen?

For the smaller Suns the goals are simple: Spread the floor, pick up the pace, make Kobe work for his points, and keep the Lakers from killing them in the paint and on the boards. For LA its the polar opposite: Slow down the pace, establish Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in the post, cut down Steve Nash’s lanes and avenues, and chase the Suns off of the three-point line.

“We don’t try to overanalyze anything. It’s pretty simple. You’re going to have to guard Kobe and do a good job there, you’re going to have to rebound the basketball with Pau and Bynum and those guys in there, and we’ve got to find a way to spread the floor,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said.

“I don’t think there’s any secrets out there. We’ve got to try to attack their weak areas, which are not very many, and we’ve got to try to sure up our weak areas,” he added. “Obviously their length and their rebounding is going to be a big key.”

As for containing Kobe, who hasn’t practiced since the Lakers swept the Jazz and had fluid drained from his knee today, expect Grant Hill to get the first crack at it. Gentry made it clear it won’t just be one guy on No. 24, but Hill should do the majority of the work.

No matter who is guarding him, Kobe is going to score, and he’s going to score often. But the real key is finding a way to combat the Lakers’ length.

LA’s massive front line is a bit hobbled with Bynum’s knee still banged up, so the Suns need to put him in pick-and-roll situations and exploit his lack of mobility. Luckily for the Lakers they have an equally-effective Lamar Odom waiting on the bench, but Bynum has given the Suns fits in the past and if he can be taken out of the equation Phoenix has a chance to swing the series in their favor.

In addition to Bynum’s injury, the Suns expect Robin Lopez to be in the starting lineup, which couldn’t come at a better time with the Lakers’ twin towers patrolling the paint. It remains to be seen how effective he will be in his first career playoff game, but just his presence makes the Suns a better team.

Lopez is a huge key to the series, but if the Suns’ other center Channing Frye is equally as important as he can spread the floor and be an X-factor of sorts for Phoenix. Jason Richardson also needs to get going if the Suns hope to hang around in Game 1.

He’s averaged only 8.8 points per game on 31.0 percent shooting from the field and 14.3 percent (3-of-21) from three against LA during the regular season, which is largely a product of the Lakers’ three-point defense that led the NBA during the regular season. But Gentry made it clear the formula against the Lakers’ tough perimeter defense is simple — make shots.

If the Suns are able to do that, while spacing the floor and attacking the Lakers bigs on both offense and defense, they have a chance of taking the all-important Game 1. Although the Suns are on the road against the game’s best closer and the NBA’s best postseason coach, there is no lack of confidence with this group.

“We’ve arrived,” Stoudemire said. “We’re here. We’re a force to be reckoned with.”

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