Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Preview and Prediction: Western Conference Finals

2010 Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns

There couldn't be a more interesting match up than the Lakers and Suns. They're contrasting styles of play set the table for what most to believe will be a hard fought series. Let's take a look at how they got here and they're styles of play.

Phoenix Suns:

In the first round, the Suns faced an undermanned Portland team and defeated them in six games. Phoenix then moved onto conference semi's and took on the Spurs and quickly dispersed of them in an impressive four game sweep.

When former coach Mike D'antoni and Steve Nash arrived in Phoenix years ago, the look and style of play for that franchise can be described as, like the book, seven seconds or less. That book gives an in depth analysis of how the Suns offense is based around pushing the ball down the opponents throat, and getting a good shot up in seven seconds or less. With Mike D'antoni now on the opposite coast coaching the Knicks, Steve Nash and new coach Alvin Gentry have worked together to keep that system alive and well in the valley of the sun.

A lot of NBA offensive systems are based on the simple pick and roll, but no offense relies and thrives off of the "basic" pick and roll as much as the Suns does. Many compare guarding Steve Nash to being that little ball in a pinball machine, you are in constant motion, getting screened, hit and when you think you're finally free, another Suns player blindsides you with yet another screen.

Steve Nash has deceptive speed, fantastic ball handling skills, great vision, and the uncanny ability to squeeze bullet passes into the tightest of spots, oh, and he is one of the best three point and free throw shooters ever to graze the hardwood. The combination of those qualities make him one of the best point guards in basketball today, and one of the best to ever play.

Most people, myself included, didn't expect Amar'e Stoudemire to be with the Suns at this point in the season. Phoenix aggressively shopped Amar'e prior to this years trade deadline, but weren't enamored with any of the offers they received and decided it would be best to take their chances resigning him in free agency, it turned out to be a great decision. Since the All-Star break, Stoudemire has been one of the best players in the league with averages of 27 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 1.4 blocks per game.

Amar'e provides the perfect compliment to Nash in the pick and roll game, he has great footwork and hands and he finishes strong at the rim. What really sets Stoudemire apart from other big men is his ability to hit the jump shot from 13 to 18 feet, if an opposing team takes away the roll, Amar'e will simply pop out and hit the mid range jumper.

A big part of the Suns game is hitting shots from behind the arc, and they rely on a multitude of different players to spread the floor, and knock one in from deep. The acquisition of Jason Richardson from the Bobcats in 2008 showed that new GM Steve Kerr was dedicated to making the Suns a better, more athletic team. What concerned most Suns fans, though, was that Richardson was more of a slasher than a floor spreading three point threat like Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, the two players who were swapped for J-Rich. Soon enough, the Phoenix faith full would come to see that Richardson had the ability to be a viable deep ball threat, and he has tuned up his shot in this years playoffs. Richardson has fired 66 three point shots and has connected on 34 of them, that is 51.5% from three point range for the playoffs.

The Suns also deploy very solid long range bombers from their bench in Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. Many believe that Phoenix has one of the deepest, most talented, and toughest benches in the NBA; with gritty players such as Lou Amundson, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic coming in and playing tough minutes. The Suns rely very heavily on their bench play to bring even more energy than the starters night in and night out. When the Phoenix bench is clicking on all cylinders they are a tough squad to beat.

The effectiveness of the Suns offense is definitely not in question, but their dedication to playing defense is. In remembering past Suns teams, one would notice that they had defensive liabilities all over the floor. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire always seemed disinterested in playing any sort of defense, and former coach Mike D'antoni never seemed to want them to try and stop the opponent. They would stick Raja Bell on the opposing teams best player in hope that he could shut down whoever it was, allowing the team to get out in transition.

This year's Suns team is different, though, it seems as if Alvin Gentry has made it clear that defense is something that the team had to focus on in order to win. They have added guys such as Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Lou Amundson and Robin Lopez, who go out and make a concerted effort on the defensive end each night, and it looks like it has rubbed off on Nash and Stoudemire as well. Throughout the playoffs, the Suns have held their opponents to 96 points per game, which never would have happened with past Phoenix squads.

For the Suns to win this series they must be efficient in transition, force the Lakers to take contested outside shots, and knock down the three at a 45% clip for the series.

Los Angeles Lakers:

In the first round, the Lakers struggled mightily with the younger more athletic Thunder, but still took the series in six games. In that series, Durant, Westbrook and Co. made the lakers look old and slow and sent Lakerland into crisis mode. In the second round, L.A. dismantled the Jazz in an easy four game sweep that brought promise and stability back into the heart and mind of the alarmed Laker faith full.

The defending champions came into this season as the run away favorites to win their second NBA championship in as many years. With the signing of free agent Ron Artest (in a virtual swap for Trevor Ariza) any and all people who follow the Association felt as if the Lakers would coast through the regular season and stomp on opponents on their way to another title, but that proved to be wishful thinking. The Lakeshow were hit with the injury bug throughout the entire season: Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum each missed 17 games, and Kobe Bryant battled multiple injuries all season and ended up missing nine games. The injuries proved to be a hindrance for the Lakers to mesh as a unit.

We heard all of the talk after the Lakers series against the Thunder about how Kobe was too old to will his team to victory, but Kobe quickly quieted those critics with two monster games both offensively and defensively to close out the Thunder. I agree, to some extent, about Kobe not being able to score 40 points every night against quality opponents, but what he needs to realize is he doesn't need to have a huge offensive game for his team to win, the Lakers have too many weapons.

The Lakers style could not be more different than that of the Suns. The Lakers look to slow things down, and run a slow, methodical triangle offense in a half court set. When run properly, the triangle offense is what I like to consider "beauty on the court". Tex Winter created the triangle offense as a series of reactionary movements and cuts based on what the defense is giving you. When a team has a roster full of players with high basketball IQ's, such as the Lakers, it is nearly impossible to stop the triangle offense if it is being run properly. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they haven't been doing that, and that can be attributed to new comer Ron Artest's inability to understand the inner workings of the offense. If one is to watch the game, and watch Artest especially, they will see how his lack of understanding of the offense causes for a lot of hesitation, which allows the defense to re-react to which ever cut, fade or pass that Artest should make.

Throughout he first two rounds of this years playoffs, every NBA analyst, talk show host, TV personality and anyone involved in sports has noted that nobody can compete with the Lakers big men. Their size and length in the paint is a huge advantage that sometimes is forgotten about, and that's when they get in trouble. Pau Gasol is 7'0, Andrew Bynum is 7'1, and Lamar Odom is 6'11 no other team in the league can attest to having a bigger more talented front line than what the Lakers can deploy every night. One of the Lakers big men, Andrew Bynum, has been a non-factor in this years postseason, and that is due to the slight tear in his meniscus on his right knee. Bynum is averaging 10 ppg, 9 rpg and 2 blocks per game in the playoffs, which are not terrible numbers, but Bynum has had absolutely no impact in 8 of the 10 playoff games.

The Lakers are in desperate need of someone other than guys named Kobe And Pau to show up and make an impact. That means, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum really need to relish the rest they have this week, and come out on Monday with rejuvenated focus and energy. If those three guys are healthy and making an impact on any facet of the game, whether it be offensively, defensively or on the boards, the Lakers are nearly impossible to beat.

In order for the Lakers to win this series they must limit transition, that means get to Steve Nash defensively early and often, they need to pound the ball on the inside and attempt to get the Phoenix bigs in foul trouble, and lastly, the Lakers need to control the glass both defensively and offensively, that will help limit transition opportunities for the Suns.

Position by Position Breakdown:

Point Guards: Steve Nash vs. Derek Fisher
This is an obvious choice, Steve Nash is one of the best point guards to ever play the game, and he is having one of the best seasons of his career. Don't be surprised if the series is decided by Derek Fisher, his knack for hitting big shots at key times is a quality that only few have been lucky enough to have.

Shooting Guards: Jason Richardson vs. Kobe Bryant
As well as J- Rich has been shooting the ball, Kobe Bryant is the choice here. The Black Mamba silenced all of his critics in the dominating sweep of the Jazz, and he likes to save his best games for Phoenix. Look for Kobe to come out aggressive on offense and also look for him to take chances on defense.

Small Forwards: Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest
This is a tough one. Artest has been playing terrible on offense, but defensively, nobody is as willing as Ron to take on the biggest of challenges. Grant Hill, on the other hand, has been playing effectively on both ends of the court and fits in perfectly with the Suns system. As hard as this one is, I am gonna have to go with Artest, solely on the fact that the Lakers don't rely on him as much offensively as Phoenix does on Hill, which will free up Ron to be more focused on defense.

Power Forwards: Amar'e Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol
Gasol's ability to create his own shot in the post, use a plethora of post moves and step out and hit a jumper up to 17 feet makes him a nightmare to guard. Pau has also made an effort to play harder on defense and has become one of the best rebounders in the NBA because of it. Stoudemire is very gifted offensively in the pick and roll, but his inability to establish himself on the block, and his lack of effort on the defensive end is enough to give the nod to Gasol in the battle of the power forwards.

Centers: Jarron Collins/Robin Lopez vs. Andrew Bynum
We don't know if Lopez will play yet, but even if he does, the Suns don't rely on the center position for any kind of offensive production. The Suns centers are there for screens and rebounding, that's it. The Lakers do rely on Andrew Bynum to produce offensively, defensively and on the boards. when Bynum is healthy and engaged in the game, he is one of the best centers in the league. I think a weeks worth of rest will give Bynum enough time to recuperate and come out with energy to make an impact. This battle goes to Bynum.

X-Factors: Suns Bench vs. Lamar Odom
Like I said earlier in the post, the Suns bench is very strong, and Phoenix relies on those guys to bring energy, toughness and three point shooting on a nightly basis. The Suns bench is very dangerous and can change the make up of a game. Lamar Odom might be one of the most frustrating players in the eyes of basketball purists. He has been blessed with great size, speed and versatility. His ability to control the boards and lead the fast break is unmatched by anyone his size. Odom has been in a funk so far this postseason, Averaging only 8 points and 8 rebounds per game. I believe that Lamar will bring his game for this series and the Suns young bench may be a but overwhelmed with the magnitude of this series, this battle goes to The Candy Man.

Prediction: Lakers in Six

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