Los Angeles Versus Phoenix PreviewWestern Conference Finals
#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #3 Phoenix (54-28)
Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1
Phoenix can win if…the Suns are able to produce high percentage scoring opportunities in the open court by getting defensive stops and pushing the ball before the Lakers can set up their half court defense. Steve Nash must break down the Lakers' point guards off of the dribble in order to create open shots for his teammates and himself. Amare Stoudemire has to assert himself not only offensively but also defensively and on the glass. The Suns also need Jason Richardson to be a consistent scoring threat, forcing Kobe Bryant to expend energy defensively.
L.A. will win because…the Suns have no answer for Bryant, who averaged 27.5 ppg on .544 field goal shooting in four regular season games versus Phoenix. Bryant typically scores prolifically and efficiently versus the Suns: in 2008-09 he averaged 28.3 ppg on .467 field goal shooting against the Suns and in 2007-08 he scored 31.3 ppg on .537 field goal shooting versus Phoenix. The Lakers have won the regular season series versus the Suns 3-1 in each of the past three years.
The Suns' problems defending Bryant are compounded by the fact that it will also be difficult for them to match up with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the paint. If the Suns double team Bryant, then Gasol or Bynum will have a field day.
Other things to consider: Kobe Bryant sat out four of the Lakers' final five regular season games to rest his injured right knee but the time off did not cure whatever was ailing him and he clearly did not have the usual bounce in his legs when the playoffs started. Although he rescued the Lakers in game two of the first round versus the Thunder by scoring 39 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter--Bryant did not really hit his stride until game five of that series: the Lakers had an extra off day and the well rested Bryant asked for--and received--the responsibility of checking young Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Bryant's suffocating defense enabled the Lakers to win that pivotal contest and then they closed out the series behind his 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting in game six.
Bryant seemed like the Kobe Bryant of old--as opposed to an old Kobe Bryant--as he averaged 32.0 ppg on .523 field goal shooting in the Lakers' sweep of the Utah Jazz, scoring at least 30 points in each game. Bryant is the only player to score at least 30 points in four straight playoff games versus the Jazz--and he has accomplished this feat twice. Bryant's 32 point performance in game four against Utah marks the seventh straight time that he has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, breaking the NBA record held by Elgin Baylor.
It cannot be a comforting thought to the Suns that Bryant will have had a week of rest prior to game one of this series.
Through 10 playoff games this year, Bryant is averaging 26.9 ppg while shooting .457 from the field, .375 from three point range and .790 from the free throw line. The Lakers are 6-0 when Bryant scores at least 30 points but just 2-2 when he scores 24 points or less. Bryant shot at least .455 from the field in five of his six 30 point games but shot .444 or worse from the field in three of the four games in which he scored 24 points or less. As I have insisted since the playoffs began, the key factor for the Lakers to be successful is for Bryant to average at least 26-28 ppg while shooting .450 or better from the field; those levels of productivity and efficiency by Bryant force opposing teams to tilt their defenses toward Bryant, opening up easy scoring opportunities for Bryant's teammates.
This may seem odd to say, but the Cleveland Cavaliers' premature ouster from the playoffs aids the Lakers' quest to win repeat titles. The Cavs--with their deep rotation of big guys--matched up better with the Lakers than any other playoff team in either conference and they wore down the Lakers during both regular season meetings. The Celtics probably match up better with the Lakers than the Suns or Magic but the Magic--who did not match up real well with the Cavs--will probably take out the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, when LeBron James decided to spend game five of the Cleveland-Boston series wandering around aimlessly behind the three point line he changed the theme of the 2010 playoffs from "Win a ring for the 'King'" to "Win a ring for the thumb"--Bryant now has a great opportunity to capture his fifth championship, tying Lakers legend Magic Johnson and moving to within one title of Michael Jordan.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM