Five keys to the rest of the West Finals

So we have a series. Contrary to popular thought entering last weekend, discussing a potential Suns-Magic Finals could end up being more than an avenue to taunt the way the rest of the nation seemingly was already gearing up for Lakers-Celtics.

But reading through some local LA articles makes me think this series is something other than all tied up. The LA Times’ Bill Plaschke still doesn’t think the Suns can win it (shocking) and ESPN Los Angeles’ Arash Markazi wrote, “The Suns might not be the best sparring partners, but at least they’re making the Lakers sweat now.”

A couple days from now the Lakers might be doing more than sweating.

I understand the Lakers have underwhelmed in getting to 2-2 the past few years against Houston, Denver and Oklahoma City before taking over, but this Suns team isn’t Houston, Denver or Oklahoma City. I don’t exactly think the Suns should be favored to win the series at this point, but anyone who thinks the Suns are just a speed bump on the Lakers’ run to the Finals should go back and re-watch the past two games.

Well, unless you listen to the homers on my site (I mean that with love!), because as of this writing 92 percent of my 357 voters think the Suns are going to the Finals. Does that just mean all the Lakers commenters have gone away for the time being?

I think we’ve got a dogfight on our hands. I see Game 5 as being the pivotal contest. If the Suns win that, I think they close it out in six. If they drop it, it would be hard to see them winning Game 7 in Los Angeles.

The Suns have all the momentum right now and they have the Lakers on their heels a bit. Here are five keys to the Phoenix Suns finishing off the Lakers and advancing to the NBA Finals:

1.  The will of Nash and the Suns’ vets vs. Kobe

Steve Nash, running toward his first NBA Finals, has never been closer to the destination. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Steve Nash, running toward his first NBA Finals, has never been closer to that destination. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Steve Nash has never been closer to the NBA Finals. He was two wins shy of reaching the promised land with the Mavs against the Spurs in 2003, and he was the same two wins short with the Suns against the Mavs in 2006.

As the NBA player to have competed in the most playoff games without playing in the Finals, Nash knows how rare these opportunities are, and he knows that this may be the last time he’s this close in his illustrious career.

Nash’s legacy is truly on the line. He’s already likely a Hall of Famer. However, when people talk about Nash’s two MVPs and his revolutionary style there’s always the big BUT he’s never even been to the Finals. This is his chance to change how he will be remembered forever, as if he can knock off the defending champion Lakers as the leader of these underdog Suns he probably raises a level in Bill Simmons’ Hall-of-Fame pyramid.

Then there’s Grant Hill, another vet who had never even won a playoff series until now. He’s known for being one of the first “next Jordans” in the mid-90s before injuries robbed him of a Hall of Fame career. Aside from the “what if?” factor from Hill’s injuries, a championship is the one thing missing from his resume.

Then there’s Amare Stoudemire, who is hungry for a payday this offseason. That shouldn’t insinuate that his second-half tear is a money grab and he doesn’t care about winning because he certainly does and has been as unselfish as you could ever expect him to be. But it’s pretty obvious that his value will continue to blow up if he plays in the Finals.

On the other side there is the greatest killer in the game today, the one and only Kobe Bryant.

But Kobe can’t do it himself. Nobody else seemed to want to step up in Phoenix, and the Lakers lost two fabulous Kobe performances in the Valley.

Kobe is always scary, but I could see Nash having a Hall-of-Fame-level killer game now that he can smell the Finals.

2.  The Gasol-Odom combination

I’ve been saying it all series: the Gasol-Odom combination kills the Suns.

Through three games, this combination beat the Suns by 30 in 86 minutes, including a +35 in 30 minutes with Channing Frye on the floor. In Game 4 even when Frye found his jump shot, the Suns still lost seven points when he played against Gasol-Odom, and this duo was actually +3 against the Suns’ bench in Game 4 despite the overall effectiveness of the Suns’ reserves.

Lopez has been most effective big against this unit, so he really needs to get more time against them after logging just 13 minutes in Game 4, especially considering the fact that he was the difference in Game 3.

Whether the Suns can do a capable job neutralizing the Gasol-Odom combination will go a long way toward determining the series.

3.  The benches

If the Gasol-Odom combination was solid even against the Suns’ bench in Game 4 then you know Andrew Bynum certainly wasn’t.

Wayne Winston wrote in an e-mail that the Bynum-Odom lineup lost 18 points in just under 12 minutes against the Suns’ reserves alone in Game 4. As Mike Schmitz wrote today, I’m sure the quickness of Dragic and Barbosa on pick and rolls against Bynum had a lot to do with this absolute thrashing.

The Lakers’ starters beat the Suns’ first unit, but this lineup more than made up the difference, and for the series the Suns’ bench mob is +30 in 20 minutes against Bynum-Odom. The Suns sure must hope the Lakers continue to play Bynum-Odom at the start of second and fourth quarters.

It took three games, but the Suns’ bench finally got it going, and this team as a whole (and the bench in particular) now seems to have its swagger back after playing a bit tentatively during the first go around in LA. Now the question is if the Phoenix reserves can keep that up in Los Angeles and if the Lakers’ bench will play better in the friendly confines of Staples Center after going MIA in Phoenix.

4.  The zone

After Game 4, I wrote that the Suns’ zone has turned around the series. Although the Lakers have still scored bursts of points against the zone, it has forced them onto the perimeter and created the kind of fast, three-point shooting game the Suns prefer to play.

It has also slowed the Lakers down from the manic pace at which they were putting up points in Games 1 and 2.

Now the question is if the zone can carry the Suns to two more wins. Even the Suns themselves seem surprised it has worked as much as it has, but many pundits seem to think the bottom will fall out eventually.

I think the Suns may have to mix things up, but the zone has proven to be a weapon. I really like how the Suns attack out of the zone. They just seem to be more aggressive out of it, the second unit in particular.

The Suns are scoring better than they have all season in this series. If the zone can bring the Lakers back to a reasonable level as it did in Games 3 and 4 then the Suns have a shot.

5.  Three-point shooting

Before Game 4 I was talking to somebody about how the Suns always have one game where they just shoot the lights out from three and the other team just doesn’t have a chance.

I thought we were headed to that contest in Game 4 when the Suns drilled 8-of-16 threes in the second quarter alone, but the rest of the game combined they were just 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) to finish at 36.7 percent. Only in Game 2 when they knocked down 41.7 percent of their long balls did the Suns even resemble the second-best three-point shooting team in NBA history (they shot 41.2 percent on the season, best in the league by a country mile).

For the series the Suns have nailed just 31-of-96 from deep (32.3 percent), which not coincidentally is ticks off the 32.8 percentage the Lakers yielded during the regular season.

The question now is if the Suns can break through from deep for more than a quarter.

Going back to my conversation from the beginning of this section, my friend said he would rather the Suns shoot the lights out in one of the games in Los Angeles than in Game 4, when I predicted it would happen (I guess I was a quarter right).

If the Suns enjoy one of their vintage games from distance in downtown Los Angeles this week, well, the Suns will sure be a lot more than a sparring partner.

Tags: Lamar Odom Pau Gasol Steve Nash Suns Bench Three-Pointers Zone Defense

  • OhYeahButter!

    Unleash the Dragon in the 4th ad we should be good to go!

  • Bemnet

    This is a massive game. Oh man, I'm excited. I am dying here waiting for the game.

    5 things need to happen for the Suns to win the game in my opinion

    -Steve Nash and Amare start the game strong and set an aggresive tempo

    -Bench plays again like they did in game 4 with energy and composure

    -3 point shooting improves

    -Limit inside points by the Lakers

    -Free throw shooting, we need as many free throws as we got in the last two games. Those free throws were a big part of both those wins.

    I believe in you guys.

    Go Suns!

    We win this and its over, nobody comes to Phoenix and grabs a win from us. Blazers were lucky haha.

  • Brent

    Game 5 is all about STEVE NASH!!! – He has to come out aggressive and looking to score, put the Lakers on their heels and then let the bench play with the lead at the start of the 2nd quarter.

    LA was +21 in the 1st quarter of Games 1 & 2.

    Go Suns! Staying up late here on the East Coast to Watch!

  • Bond

    After game 4, it is the first time that I feel want to cry for my sport passion since Jordan’s last game in 2003.

    I have never been more eager to hope my team can the game. I suppose the feeling and experience we have so far may be once in a lifetime.

    So , game 5 can be a game of a lifetime for me.

    Let’s Strive, Suns!!!!!!!!

  • Patrick M

    Critical critical critical game for the Suns tonite! I believe that they can do it!
    What to watch for:
    1. Early foul calls against the Suns. These can deflate most teams. We’ll see if this happens and if so, how the Suns respond.
    2. Lakers pounding it inside, particularly to Gasol and Odom. Can the zone prevent or at least hinder the Lakers inside game?
    3. Kobe penetrating the zone. Penetration is the key to attacking and breaking down a zone D. Will PJ assign the task to Kobe (or will Kobe take it on himself?) I don’t think anyone else on the Lakers is capable of this task.
    4. Suns bench play, again! Can the Suns bench produce on the road, particularly in LA, reasonably close to their last performance at home? Hey, they did in San Antonio, so why not?
    5. Total fouls and free throws. Will the disparity turn in the Lakers favor?
    I think that our two unit team is the key. Fresh players, lots of energy, pushing the pace and scrambling energetic defense are the trademarks of this team. If we play to our strengths, the game is ours!

  • thesofasurfer

    like how the press/analysts state how great the Lakers are shooting the ball…..oh……really? Take Kobe’s bad shot selection (and he’s making them) out of the equation and the Lakers haven’t done squat. They are “trying” to keep pace with the Suns via the 3 point line and that’s not their game. Phil Jackson acts like he’s got all the answers with his team but he is a buffoon. Never liked that dude cause he has to have the best players to win. Couldn’t do it with Pippen for 2 years…get it what I am saying? The Suns are going to win and I hope the Celtcis win cause they will be run right out of the arena by 30+ points. And lastly, I love how everyone is standing around when Kobe shoots and on defense. Cannot tell you how many times Gasol was in no man’s land; does he even put his hands up? I haven’t seen it. Go to the drawer and pull out a fork because the Lakers are done!

  • Hersey

    I think a lot of us are thinking the same thing- we need Nash to have one of his classic games. He’s the only guy who hasn’t broken out yet. The opportunity is there- seize it Suns.

  • Tony

    It’s quiet in here… I guess my fellow LA “fans” are hiding out until after the game because there’s a chance that the Suns have our number. LOL.

    Not to sound like a hater, but this is something that people should have seen coming from three months back. I just laugh when I hear my fellow bar flies call the Suns soft. No team overcame more (Slumps, Amare drama, the tags from last year) to accomplish more and the fact that nobody (NOBODY) expected Phoenix to be here means that the pressure is on LA for this one.

    I know Kobe will come out to play and that the crowd will be hot, but some part of me (Maybe my bad knees and the fact that I can’t hit an outside shot any more LOL) wants to see “Old Man Nash” show these kids how it’s done. We know how hard he is and what his resume says but I don’t think he’s ever had a chance to show his heart like he does here. May the best team win!

  • Joshua

    Looks like that fork has "Phoenix" engraved on the handle.

  • Z Man

    Game four was the last of our wins.

    That game was led by our 2nd unit: Frye, Barbosa, Louis, Dud & Gogi.

    They led us out of a hole in the LA game. In the last game here, they did the same. If they were allowed to finish, the champions might have been right here.

    Frye will stay. But LB is gone? Dark days now for our Suns. Will we keep Louis? What a bargain!!!! But it looks like we will let him walk away????