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Scott Howard-Cooper

Shannon Brown puts the finishing touch on a dominant Lakers effort in the paint in Game 1.
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Lakers' inside presence an unsolveable puzzle for Suns

Posted May 18 2010 6:50AM

LOS ANGELES -- Shannon Brown had just finished taxiing down the lane when he lifted off in an attempt to finish the fast break with a rainmaker dunk, practically resting his knees on the shoulder of prop Suns defender Jason Richardson in the process. At that point, it was official.

The Lakers owned the paint Monday night and so, too, would they own the skies around the basket. Anything close to the rim, it was theirs. Anything close to the lane, it was theirs.

Also theirs: the Suns.

This is just how it is -- despite holding Andrew Bynum to five boards in 19 minutes and Pau Gasol to four in 37, the Suns were still outworked on the glass 42-34 by the Lakers. That's the gloomy reality check for Phoenix. It got worked over inside without the L.A. big men close to flexing.

In the greatest problem of all, and there are many to choose from amid the rubble of the 128-107 loss in the opener of the Western Conference final, the Suns don't have a counter move. Even if the defense improves for Game 2 on Wednesday, the Lakers will still be bigger and stronger and able to exploit the mismatch as long as they have the championship-level focus that they have had in their last seven games.

"I think our room for error is small," Phoenix star Steve Nash said. "They're a lot bigger than we are. They had a lot of points in the paint. They're probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on, so we've got to try to cut down on some of those transition buckets, offensive rebounds, defensive lapses, whatever it is."

Imagine if Bynum, struggling for three games with a bad knee and bad rhythm, breaks out and really stomps the Suns. Game 1 was bad enough, and that was with Lamar Odom getting 19 rebounds and no other Laker more than five. Phoenix's best rebounder, Amar'e Stoudemire (who has never been great on the boards for an All-Star power forward), had three in 35 minutes on Monday. Center Robin Lopez, returning from a back injury, can't be counted on there, and the other big, Channing Frye, makes his biggest contribution by shooting 3-pointers.

This is not a team that ordinarily is going to muscle up against anybody, and it was proven quickly in this series that it has little chance of happening against the Lakers. If the outcome after a week to prepare for the defending champions -- the same ones getting little from Bynum and their post play in Game 1 -- is the Suns getting outscored in the paint 56-36, what hope does Phoenix have for an adjustment?

The Suns' only previous chance was the same dream that everyone else in the Western Conference playoffs had: that the Lakers would continue to wander the countryside, disengaged in general and particularly unfocused on capitalizing on the same size advantage they had against the Thunder and the Jazz. There they were in the first round, jacking up 31 shots from behind the arc one game in what became the first pass of an Oklahoma City fast break. That's the eye-rolling Lakers that Utah and Phoenix needed to see.

Instead, they got the one that is stepping on people. Monday, 30 of L.A.'s 62 points in the first half were in the paint, with another 26 to follow after intermission. It would have been more except that Brown missed the dunk in the fourth quarter while being fouled by Richardson.

"It wasn't exactly the post-up plays and the big guys," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "It was the middle drives and the perimeter players driving in the paint more. Gasol had a great game and had some good post-up moves, but for the most part, it was them breaking down our perimeter defense and driving in the paint and creating situations that way. So that's an area that I think we can get a little bit better."

The problem being that they need to get a lot better in a little time.

Closing the critical gap will require a monster showing by Stoudemire while Bynum and Gasol are again neutralized on the boards. Phoenix's perimeter defense also must show up. Finally, Lopez must leave a mark with his energy play or Frye must sting L.A. by forcing one of the Lakers' bigs to step outside to guard him.

Good luck with all that.

Until then, the Lakers own the inside and own the matchup, and they're about to own the series as well. This is just how it is.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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