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 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.