The Los Angeles Lakers will host the Phoenix Suns tonight in Game 1 as the Western Conference Finals get underway. Both teams have had the week off after sweeping their opponents in the semis and both teams needed the rest. Steve Nash still has a shiner but is looking much better after taking an accidental Tim-Duncan elbow to the eye in the last series. Kobe Bryant, who recently had fluid drained from his right knee, has had some time to heal, get his legs back under him again and return to his dominating form. The long layoff was a welcome break for Bynum as well, who has been playing with torn knee cartilage and visibly hurting. Bynum will have surgery as soon as the season ends, but his injury could continue to deteriorate in the meantime – which would be a major factor in this series.
Despite these physical challenges, the defending Champions come into this round with a tall, talented team that just seems to have caught its second wind and picked up the level of their game. After, in many people’s opinions, barely escaping the Oklahoma City Thunder’s challenge, they are focused and have gotten back to playing Laker basketball. In addition to Kobe having five straight 30+ point games, the big guys Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum have all played better in this last series. Gasol has been a dominant force in the past couple games, putting up huge numbers. Odom has given the second unit a spark and breathed life back into the second unit, which gives Phil Jackson great flexibility with his front line.
Although I favor the Lakers in this series to move onto the NBA Finals, you can’t overlook what Phoenix has accomplished. The Suns, who knocked LA out of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, are coming off of six straight playoff wins. They are playing with great momentum right now and with great belief and confidence in one another. Not only are Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire playing outstanding pick-and-roll basketball, but Jason Richardson has found his groove on the offensive end as well as being a hard-nosed defender.
Starting small forward Grant Hill is also playing great and, with the daunting task of guarding Kobe, has taken on the role of being the defensive stopper for their team. Now in his fifteenth year in the league, this is the longtime veteran’s first trip to the Conference Finals and likely his best shot at getting to the NBA Finals. Robin Lopez will return to the starting lineup for the first time in the postseason in order to counteract the size of the Lakers and attempt to slow up their low post play. Beyond the first string, the reinforcements have been extremely effective off the bench throughout the playoffs and will give the Lakers bench a run for their money.
The Lakers will look to control the pace, capitalize on their home-court advantage and take the early lead in the series. They are an especially formidable force at home, having lost only lost seven games at the Staples Center in the regular season. The run-and-gun Suns will try to get out and push the ball in order to attack in transition and find points in the paint or dish outside the arc before the Lakers have time to set up. If they are shooting and making 3-pointers, they will be a very difficult match for the Los Angeles Lakers. It will come down to the size and length of the Los Angeles Lakers versus the speed, quickness and athleticism of the Phoenix Suns.