Finally, the Phoenix Suns broke through to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in a playoff series, stunning the Spurs in a four-game sweep. Their reward? Oh, merely a date with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers are looking to win the conference for the third consecutive season, and they come in off a sweep of their own over the Utah Jazz. In that series, an offense that had been dormant much of the regular season and even in the first round against Oklahoma City came to life, making the Lakers even more dangerous.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes (14th NBA) regular season, 89.6 (7th) playoffs
Lakers Offensive Rating: 110.4 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA) regular season, 113.0 (5th) playoffs
Phoenix Defensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA) Regular Season, 108.3 (8th) Playoffs
Stopping the Lakers starts with slowing Kobe Bryant, and the Jazz failed at that task. Mostly going one-on-one against rookie Wesley Matthews, Bryant shot 56.6 percent on two-pointers and attempted 9.5 free throws a night, posting a .611 True Shooting Percentage. Grant Hill, whose defense on the smaller Andre Miller and Manu Ginobili was critical for Phoenix in the first two rounds, should get the call to defend Bryant. Bryant will be a much greater challenge.
Bryant averaged 27.5 points per game and made 60 percent of his shot attempts inside the arc during the regular season against the Suns, but he was playing largely against Jason Richardson, not Hill. No matter the primary defender, Phoenix will have to offer help at times. That's when L.A.'s three-point shooters will become key. In the postseason, the Lakers are making just 33.3 percent of their attempts beyond the arc. Derek Fisher (42.2 percent) has been effective, but Ron Artest leads the team in threes attempted and has knocked them down at a dismal 23.1 percent clip.
In the post, the matchups will depend heavily on the availability of Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who told reporters on Saturday that the symptoms caused by the small tear in his right lateral meniscus are worsening. Bynum's knee continues to swell, though he plans to play through it. To match up with Bynum, the Suns will need center Robin Lopez, who is expected to return after missing the end of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs with a lower back injury.
Even with Lopez, there will be a lot of defensive pressure in this series on Amar'e Stoudemire, who will be asked to contend with Pau Gasol in the post when the starting lineups are on the floor. Stoudemire more than any other player is responsible for Phoenix's improvement at the defensive end of the floor since the midpoint of the season. He's been in the right position, which has been a question mark in the past, and is doing a good job one-on-one.
Gasol is coming off an incredible series against the undersized Utah frontline. He averaged 23.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, shooting 60.7 percent from the field. Gasol wasn't nearly so strong against the Suns in the regular season, largely because the Lakers looked elsewhere. He had no more than 13 true shooting attempts in the three games he played versus Phoenix.
If Stoudemire can handle Gasol, that will allow Alvin Gentry to finish with the small lineup of Hill and Jared Dudley at forward that has been so effective for the Suns in the playoffs. According to BasketballValue.com, Phoenix has outscored opponents by an unthinkable 38.5 points per 100 possessions with the Hill-Dudley forward combo, thanks entirely to unstoppable offense--147.9 points per 100 possessions. That unit does put a lot of pressure on Stoudemire, though, as the only true big on the floor.
WHEN PHOENIX HAS THE BALL
Pace: 94.0 possessions per 48 minutes (4th NBA) Regular Season, 89.1 (10th) Playoffs
Phoenix Offensive Rating: 117.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA) Regular Season, 117.9 (2nd) Playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.3 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA) regular season, 108.0 (5th) playoffs
Despite playing a pair of above-average defenses, the Suns have actually slightly improved their league-leading Offensive Rating so far during the playoffs. At some point, everyone may realize that Phoenix's success on offense is not dependent on fast-break points. San Antonio took those scores away and still got torched at the defensive end by the Suns' pick-and-roll. Guess what the biggest weakness is for the Lakers' defense?
According to Synergy Sports, L.A. actually did a pretty good job of containing the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, ranking sixth in the league in that category. But the Lakers were only average (15th) at stopping the roll man. Stoudemire is as dangerous attacking the basket as anyone in the league, so that combination should be great for him. Stoudemire was terrible in the teams' first regular-season meeting, shooting 2-for-15, but he combined for 55 points on 21-of-39 from the field in the final two games.
On paper, the matchup between Fisher and Steve Nash is a dramatic mismatch. When Nash beats Fisher off the dribble, however, he has to contend with the length of Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom as help defenders. He was more of a passer than a scorer during the regular-season series, averaging 11.3 true shooting attempts and 9.0 assists in the four games.
The concern for the Lakers is that helping on Nash and Stoudemire means leaving someone opne, and ultimately the ball will be swung to an open Jason Richardson. Richardson has been unconscious throughout the playoffs, shooting 51.5 percent from three-point range and leading Phoenix in scoring. Staying at home on Richardson means open shots for one of the Suns' other shooters, and Channing Frye got going against San Antonio after struggling in the first round. The Lakers' best option may be forcing Hill to beat them from midrange when possible. He's an accurate shooter from 15 to 20 feet, but those shots count for two points and not three.
If possible, the Phoenix offense should get a boost from Lopez replacing Jarron Collins in the starting lineup. The Suns have essentially played 4-on-5 during Collins' cameos, making their sweep of the Spurs all the more impressive. Phoenix's Offensive Rating drops by 19.2 points per 100 possessions with Collins on the floor in the playoffs. When Collins is in, the Suns have been outscored by 20 points. When he's on the bench, Phoenix is +119.
In this series, the Suns' biggest advantage may be their bench. Even though it has been inconsistent during the postseason, the Phoenix second unit is still much deeper and more valuable than its Lakers counterpart. Goran Dragic became a part of Suns playoff lore with his huge fourth quarter in Game Three against San Antonio, while Dudley has come up big at both ends of the floor and Frye has essentially been a sixth starter since Lopez was injured. Even Leandro Barbosa has had his moments.
In the wake of the Lakers' frontcourt running through Utah, the assumption has been that this series will be more of the same. What I think that analysis misses is that Phoenix's smaller lineups can make the Lakers pay with their shooting in a way the Jazz's big men could not. Chasing shooters around the perimeter is not exactly a strength of Gasol's game, though to some extent this matchup could be similar to last year's NBA Finals when the Lakers did a good job of staying with Rashard Lewis on the perimeter.
That said, I think the matchups do favor the Lakers. Gasol has a chance to have a big series, and Bryant should be solid as well. This is the toughest half-court defense the Suns have yet faced in this postseason, and I suspect they will find points harder to come by than they were against Portland and San Antonio. I expect a fun, competitive series, but the Lakers enter it with the upper hand on paper.
Lakers in 6
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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