Meet thy enemy, Lakers fans. They’re way better than you had expected. But that doesn’t mean they are going to win.
Tonight, the Phoenix Suns roll into the Staples Center for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. This is the third straight WCF for the Lakers, but the first for the Suns since 2006’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Suns are the oldest franchise in the NBA without a championship, while the Lakers, of course, are the defending title holders. It’s only fitting that the two should meet.
And though the Lakers and Suns play in the same division, I have the feeling that not too many Laker fans really know this years’ Suns are all about. Heck, I don’t think the Suns knew either until their Round 1 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. But that series victory, along with Steve Nash’s valiant one-eyed pirate impression in Game 4, was enough to peak the interest of the league, and label these Arizonans as contenders.
The Suns are for real. They are offensive opportunists. They have to be. Two of their starting five should be in the NBA’s old folks’ home at this point, sipping tea and playing Wii with Clyde Drexler. And while they’re not going to beat you with their athletic superiority or aerial acrobatics, they are of the highest basketball pedigree, perhaps the smartest team in the league at exploiting their strengths. They have a legion of slightly-better-than-average players that have meshed together on the court and in the locker room.
And that is a scary proposition, especially to a team with so many prominent individual personalities as the Lakers.
The Suns have camaraderie. They get into the seams, they move the ball, and they hit their threes. Plus, they enjoy being together, and have bonded as dorks of the highest calibur - unabashed internet geeks who film C-grade Avatar knock-offs while in transit between games. (This shouldn’t benefit them, but for some reason it does.)
Like dogs let out from the shelter, many of the Suns are transplants from other, more promising teams that failed to advance in the past, and are overjoyed to be running together again with a like goal in mind. I can imagine them looking around their locker room (thick with purple and orange, of course, and a Go-Rilla RIP shrine) at the beginning of the season, realizing that Steve Kerr somehow stumbled on a winning formula of an uptempo drive-and-kick game, and stuck to their guns as all the NBA pundits wrote them off as a flash in the pan.
Of course, the Suns lack a true center, and are facing the Lakers’ two-headed post monster. They play little defense, and they are going against the third-most potent offensive force in the league. And they don’t have any sort of proven “Kobe-stopper”…if there even is one. To win, Phoenix has to shoot the ball extremely well, play tough interior defense, and win at least one game in LA.
Is it possible to accomplish one of these feats? Yes. All three? It won’t be easy.
I asked my good friend Grace, a Phoenix transplant and Suns die-hard, about his take on the upcoming series. He knows more about the Suns and Phoenix than any of the experts, something he is both proud and ashamed of (…I think. I know I would be.) Here is what he wrote:
“Despite the love affair the talking heads have with Jason Richardson's 20 point games, the Suns' bench is going to be the true team barometer. The Lakers are the scariest team in the final four, but have notable depth and injury concerns. In the end, I'm hoping a high level of intensity from guys like Frye and Dudley can help Steve Nash ‘carry’ us to the Finals.”
And he’s right. Steve Nash can’t carry the Suns alone, unlike the previous incarnations of this team. If the Suns are going to have a shot at taking this series with the Lakers, it’s going to take some solid play from the lesser-known and promising Phoenix bench.
Gone are Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, two hard-nosed underachievers, and in their place are the feisty Jared Dudley and the streaky Goran Dragic, who are still young and inexperienced/cocky enough to think they can hang in the late rounds of the playoffs. The rest of their bench is full of unproven yet inspired players of the “Birdman” ilk, like Louis Amundson and the freshly-uninjured Robin Lopez.
On paper, there’s no way they should beat the Lakers. But look at their plus/minus stats and per-game performance, and you can see the Suns are playing better than LA has as of late. And as two of the Lakers’ victories over Phoenix this year came on the latter half of back-to-backs for the Suns, we haven’t really seen the two teams match up against each other.
I know my predictions have sucked so far (thanks, Cavs) but I see this series going five games, with the Lakers proving just too powerful for the Suns.
Hey, Steve Nash. Yarrrrrrrr.