By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 11 2010 7:49PM
The Lakers are back where everyone expected. A repeat title is eight wins away. The other guys, well, let's be honest. The Suns missed the playoffs last year and up until the last few days of the regular season, a bottom-four seeding seemed inevitable.
Now Phoenix is a step away from The Finals. The only hurdle left after getting past perennial postseason tormentor San Antonio? The champs. The Lakers-Suns rivalry is just as personal. Steeped in history and proximity, the Lakers and Suns have ruled the Pacific Division. They've accounted for the last seven division crowns.
The Lakers hold the upper hand in the series. Not only did they win three of four during the regular season, the Purple & Gold are 7-4 all-time against Phoenix in the playoffs. But since Steve Nash reentered the rivalry in 2004, the Suns are 2-0 in the postseason.
1. Can Steve Nash play with one eye?
All indications are the banged-up point guard won't play the series with a parrot on his shoulder. The swelling over his right eye should subside by the start of the series.
2. Is it possible to make Kobe Bryant look bad?
Other than the L.A. Times Magazine, good luck. Grant Hill did keep Manu Ginobili under wraps during the West semis, but Kobe is a different animal. Even in white.
3. Who sets the pace?
The Suns hit at least 110 in three of four games vs. the Spurs. The Lakers did the same against Utah.
4. How important is championship experience at this point?
Always a plus for the Lakers, but the veteran Suns won't be overwhelmed by the moment.
5. Should we expect a Robin Lopez sighting?
Looking at the collection of L.A. skyscrapers, the Suns sure hope so.
The Lakers found another gear against Utah, scoring almost at will with a pick-your-poison mentality. Kobe Bryant had four games of at least 30, executing within the triangle as well as he has all season. Pau Gasol dominated inside against the undersized frontline, while Ron Artest and Derek Fisher drilled timely 3-pointers.
The Suns hope to counter with the same gritty approach that bothered San Antonio. Harassing No. 24 is the first order of business. While Grant Hill likely gets the initial assignment, look for Jared Dudley trying to get under Bryant's skin. Amar'e Stoudemire can't hide defensively in this series. He'll be forced to defend either Gasol or Andrew Bynum.
The Suns are going to push it at every opportunity. They're especially dangerous off misses getting to the rim or finding spots around the arc. Nash's vision and ability to get into the lane creates easy looks, either for Stoudemire inside or kick outs for jumpers for Jason Richardson, Hill, Channing Frye and friends. The Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll may be the most potent in the league, with both being able to score in multiple ways.
If Derek Fisher isn't up to the challenge of defending Nash, expect the Lakers to go bigger and more athletic against the Canadian. Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmer and the returning Sasha Vujacic are the best bets. Los Angeles did keep the supporting cast in check during the regular season, especially Richardson. The Suns' leading playoff scorer averaged just 8.8 points on 31-percent shooting during the regular season against the Lakers.
The Lakers spell it with a K. The scowling one is going to have the ball in his hands with the outcome on the line. More often than not Bryant takes the shot, but he's not afraid to pass if a better shot is there.
Likewise, Nash is charged with making something happen. Working the two-man game with Stoudemire is the first order of business, but don't forget about the bevy of shooters Nash can call on.
Lamar Odom is the Lakers' enigma. Simply due to his size and skill, Odom is a walking mismatch. He can dominate at crucial times in a variety of ways at both ends. Phoenix doesn't have a counter if Odom is on.
The Suns don't have just a bench. It's clearly a second team. Frye, Leandro Barbosa and Dudley hit the court every night with an astounding level of fearlessness. And if you need 23 points in the fourth, Goran Dragic is your man.
Don't expect another sweep. The entertainment quotient should be off the charts in what promises to be a long series. Lakers in 7.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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