It seems kind of unfair that after finally beating the team they could never go by, the Phoenix Suns still have such a long, long way to go.
And because they’re up against the Lakers, we should probably add the word long one more time, just for good measure.
Yes, the stories about how long, and tall, and big the Lakers are keep flowing in — and for good reason. They just are. Starting two 7-footers isn’t something you see from every team, especially not from a team whose first guy off the bench is 6’11″. And it’s not the kind of moot length you get from players like Yi Jianlin or Spencer Hawes; no, this is the length that dominates opposing frontcourts, knocking them out of the playoffs, leaving behind a path of broken hearts and failed attempts at defensive rebounds.
That length should be a problem. The Suns have always had problems with it. These same Lakers took the Suns to 7 games in 2006, only it wasn’t the length of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum that they were utilizing, it was that of Odom and Kwame Brown. And while these Suns are nothing like those Suns – they didn’t even have Amar’e that year – Pau and Bynum are quite an upgrade over Kwame Brown.
Then again … these aren’t the same Suns. Wait, did I already say that?
Yes, these Suns are different than any Suns team we’ve seen in the past. These Suns defend. These Suns are deep. These Suns do all that other stuff that we said before the San Antonio series and have said even louder ever since. These Suns do stuff that makes you say, “you know what, I think the Suns can do it.” And it’s the same stuff that makes other people reply, “you know what, you could be right.”
Because once you look past that length, these Suns have everything – everything – a team needs to beat these Lakers.
Speedy point guards who can torch Derek Fisher? Steve Nash is one of the best in the game, and he is spelled by a player so fast he was nicknamed “The Brazillian Blur” and by the newly crowned Goran “The Dragon” Dragic Jordan. Shooters who can spread the floor? The aforementioned Nash/Barbosa/Dragic trifecta, Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye. Strong, long defensive swingmen, who can at the very least stay with Kobe and contest his mid-range game? Grant Hill and Dudley. A dominant offensive big man who can draw fouls on the Bynums and the Gasols? We give you the post-trade deadline Amar’e Stoudemire. An offense that should be able to score against that suffocating, LA defense? If they can’t, nobody can. Not to mention that other-worldly chemistry, that always prevails over groups who aren’t as tightly knit (or so we’re told).
On paper, they should have a shot. Except for that length. Can they handle it?
The truth is, at this point, we just don’t know. Because – and I hate coming back to these same two points – we have yet to see what this version of Phoenix basketball is capable of.
Will they have Robin Lopez back? Will Amar’e continue to give a crap on defense? Will Channing Frye draw the LA big men out to the three-point line, opening the paint? Will the Suns just go small and blow LA out of the water? More importantly, can the Suns just go small and blow LA out of the water?
Conventional wisdom answers none of those questions, except perhaps the first one, which gets a “but Lopez will be rusty” asterik at the end. Conventional wisdom also says that the Suns don’t sweep the Spurs and don’t win 22 of their last 26 games, so you could see how hesitant I am to listen to it.
While getting caught up in Sunsarebackmania, however, it’s important that we don’t take the Lakers for granted. Because these Lakers are perfectly capable of playing both much better and much worse than they’ve played so far in this postseason. They’ve already done both – dominating four games against the Jazz (all games were fairly close, but apart from Game 3, was the result ever in doubt?) and Game 5 against the Thunder, but seeming very vulnerable for the other five OKC games.
Which Lakers show up this time? Who knows. They could go down low to Bynum and Gasol, exploiting the Phoenix frontline, playing their offense, moving the ball in that sort of way that makes spectators drool and coaches jealous of the talent Phil Jackson gets to work with. Or, Kobe could try to single-handedly avenge his two previous playoff losses to the Suns and play the hero. That might work in and of itself, with how he stepped up his game against Utah. Though it should be mentioned that the Jazz had bad matchups for him without Kirilenko. While, of course, considering that even good matchups for Kobe are matchups that you’re going to lose.
And if that last paragraph seemed to involve way too many conditionals and side-notes, that’s because it did. These are your 2009-2010 Los Angeles Lakers: the team that can but, on any given night, might spontaneously decide not to.
Of course, conventional wisdom might once again try and force itself into the conversation and remind us that the Lakers tend to get better as the playoffs go on. At which point we smack it in the head and tell it to stop ruining our premise.
All jokes aside – yes, last season’s Lakers got better the higher the stakes, with this year’s version seemingly following in their footsteps. And yet, the question must be asked: did they really face a team that was both talented enough and had the mental state needed to knock this team down?
These Lakers are so, so good that on most nights they win games on talent alone. And to take down that massive chunk of talent, a team has to have both a level of talent that, at the very least, approaches that of LA, and the mindset to utilize it. Last year, the only team facing the Lakers that came close to having both of these requirements were the Denver Nuggets, who — as we’ve seen this season — aren’t stable enough to maintain any mental state, let alone a positive one. And indeed, those Nuggets just lost it after four games.
This will probably be percieved as a shot at the Lakers, as an attempt to de-legitimize their title. Please understand that it isn’t. If anything, this is a compliment to LA – yes, in my opinion, they won the title last year without meeting a worthy adversary, but that’s only because they were so, so good that no adversary could possibly be worthy. And they won that title with me feeling that they could have played better. This year could be the same scenario: they could blow everybody out on talent alone. They could also run into that worthy adversary and blow them out of the water as well. All I’m saying is that it needs to happen before I’m absolutely sure that it will.
And I feel like these Suns could be that worthy adversary. There are a lot of ifs involved – if they don’t feel content with just being here (unlikely, with Steve Nash running the show); if they continue playing defense, specifically Amar’e and Frye; if Lopez returns and Amundson plays bigger than he is to round out that front court; if Jason Richardson doesn’t re-gain conciousness; if Steve Nash really is as great as we all know he is; if the Suns mental state isn’t diminshed by their lack of success against LA in the regular season (which really isn’t indicative of these two teams, since only one of those meetings came with Phoenix at their recent form and even then they were without Frye).
Really, anything could happen. Though the way some of these series have ended won’t show it, this Western Conference was extremely close from the get-go, and the matchups working in their favor had just as much to do with these two teams reaching the Conference Finals as them being the two best teams (again, not a knock – they are clearly the two best teams in the conference). That’s Playoff basketball for you: you never know how things will turn out until you have witnessed the match-ups.
And the match-up here is still inconclusive. While the Lakers have the far superior frontcourt – Bynum, Gasol and Odom should all be near-impossible for the Suns to stop if used correctly – the Suns have the far superior back court even though LA has Kobe. Fisher is that bad. And unlike against OKC, when Kobe took on the challenge of guarding Russell Westbrook, the Lakers won’t be able to guard those guards with Kobe, because (a) you can hide Fisher on Thabo Sefolosha, not on Jason Richardson/Grant Hill, and (b) Kobe’s defense on Westbrook consisted of giving him room and stopping his drives, but Nash has arguably the best pull-up jumper in the game. And while the Suns have such a deep bench that their Los Angeles counterparts seem even worse than usual in comparison, the Lakers have the better starting five and – more importantly – the best player.
So please take this prediction with a grain of salt. I’m picking the Lakers here because I think home court wins them Game 7 in an otherwise too-close-to-call afair, but anything can happen. Just like two of the four series in the previous round went against all bets. Just like series always have in years past.
Lakers in 7