Game 1 preview: Suns at Lakers

Western Conference Finals Game 1


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.”

  • lll66

    *sigh* The Suns are good enough to get a couple of games, but there's no way (in my opinion) that they take a 7 game series. But hey – no one expected an 8th place Lakers team to compete with the number one seed. And yet, they did. I can't take away that Nash and Amare are great players, and that the Suns have a good bench. However, over seven games there's a very small chance they can pull off the win. However, if the Lakers have any more injuries, the tables could turn.

    May the best team win.

  • Rod Haberer

    Dustball – good point, I was only hoping that something might change – not that something had to change. And you are right, Portland and San Antonio had their ailments too…but so did the Suns. Lopez was a big loss…and unless he comes around quick, the Suns may not have much of a chance.

    In my opinion, the best team almost always wins a 7 game series. And the Lakers clearly have more talent than the Suns. But I can also name several Suns involved series the last five years where the Suns were a better team…but somehow through bad luck or suspensions ended up losing. A lot can happen in a series like this, I'm just hoping that luck lands with Phoenix this time.

  • Rod Haberer

    Mike, nice post. You’re right on about Lopez and as x-factors, Fry and Richardson.

    But if the Suns lose tonight, fear not. I was producing the Charles Barkley Jam Session show for KPNX back in 1993 when the Suns went down 0-2 to the Lakers in a five game series. I was in the press room when coach Paul Westphal promised the Suns would go out and win the next three games. They did.

    I know this 46-0 record from the Zen master in first game series wins is impressive. But the Suns are also 0-42 in championships. Something has to give, and why not now?

    If Phoenix brings the fire and emotion we saw in the San Antonio series, then the Lakers are done. Sweeping a crippled Jazz team was a joke. The Suns swept a contender in the second round, a team that beat up the number-2 seed, Dallas.

    I love Phil Jackson, I really do. His antics make the lead-up to a game more interesting. But he’s just a coach. He doesn’t shoot free throws or get a single assist. The Suns have to stick to the game plan, win or lose game one, and they will win the series.

    I’ve been a Suns fan since ’68, and they’ve been part of my job in the media since ’93. So here’s a media prediction for you: Suns in 6.

  • Dustball

    Rod… you seem unfamiliar with the “something has to give” idiom. If the Lakers go up 1-0 and win the series, Jackson will be 47-0 and the Suns 0-43.

    As for the Lakers “joke” of a sweep, maybe you should reevaluate your Suns post season opponents. “Crippled,” applies no more aptly to any team than it does to the Blazers and Spurs. Portland requires no explanation since their cursed season was indeed one for the ages. However, to consider the Spurs “contenders” would be to ignore Duncan’s sudden drop in production following his 34th birthday between games 3 and 4 of the Dallas series. It was at that point that time literally and metaphorically ran out on the Spurs. With Tony Parker just returning from injury and not yet at full effectiveness, and Manu crushing his face and his game following thereafter, any reference to the Spurs as “contenders” could only come from a SA homer or Suns fan grasping at straws for a reason this season would be different. The Spurs were one of the worst perimeter defensive teams in the league facing one of the best perimeter offenses in the league. Add that their 3 best players were only shells of their former selves, and you have nothing more than a nice storyline for a Suns team always trying, but always failing, to get over the hump.

    As has been discussed ad nauseum , the Lakers are too big for the Suns to match up inside. While this is certainly an issue, the bigger concern for PHO should be that the Lakers are the best perimeter defensive team in the league AND are a nightmare inside against the Suns’ undersized interior. The Suns’ two best players can’t defend their position and, while now possessing a couple good individual defenders, they are still among the 5 worst TEAMS in the league defensively.

    Don’t let the lack of healthy, young stars in the previous 2 series lead you to believe the Suns have suddenly changed their stripes. They have yet to face even a middle of the pack offense in these playoffs, and haven’t seen anything close to elite level defense. Suns get hot in Game 3 at home… Lakers in 5.

  • Dustball

    Rod – Let’s hope, for all our sake, that regardless of the outcome, both teams find health in this series. I’m excited to watch it play out. I think when they coined the phrase “the beautiful game” for soccer they had never seen Phoenix play basketball. It’s too bad that this series can’t be for the title because it is sure to be the most aesthetically appealing. Best of luck to the Suns and their fans!

  • The Z. Man

    Phil is now 47-0.

    Very impressive but this one may have gone VERY differently were it not for the ending of the 5th game and subsequent desparate “guarantee” for that last game.

    Frye, Barbosa, Louis, Dud & Gogi. They took it to LA throughout the series and particularly in that last game. STAT is most likely gone. MUST KEEP Frye, Louis & our Brazilian Blur.

    MUST start and also finish with LB. Let’s go SUNS!!!!