Czar’s Playoff Preview: Suns at Lakers Game 5

Stoudemire_Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAt last we have a series. Well, two actually. After seeing far too many lopsided matchups in the semis followed by what appeared to be two more sweeps in the making, both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals have finally earned our attention. Down 3-0 to the title-hungry Celts, the Magic managed to get one foot out of the grave with a Game 4 upset and are back in contention after last night’s Game 5 win at home.

The Suns also held down the fort at home and now we have a series that’s tied up at two wins a piece heading into Game 5 tonight back in LA. One major difference for Phoenix in Games 3 and 4 was the success of their junk zone defense, which confused the Lakers offense and forced them to rely on far too many long perimeter shots. In the first two games the Lakers averaged 126 ppg, but in Games 3 and 4 they only averaged 107.5 points. That’s nearly a 20-point differential between the number of points the Suns gave up in the first two games and the amount they gave up when playing on their home court.

While the Suns’ enigmatic zone certainly tripped up the Lakers at the defensive end, they had two key things happen offensively. In the first game it was an individual taking over, while in the next game it was the bench that collectively crushed the Lakers reserves. In Game 3 Amar’e Stoudemire had a huge, huge game with 42 points and 11 rebounds. And in Game 4 the major offensive factor for Phoenix was their bench, which outscored the Lakers bench 54-20, of which 15 were made by Lamar Odom.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For the Lakers this becomes a must win at home because they don’t want to go back to Phoenix down 3-2 in the series. Will Phoenix’s zone defense continue to be effective or will the Lakers figure out how to solve the problems that the zone defense presented for them in the last two games?

TNT will televise tonight’s Game 5 action live from the Staples Center at 9:00 PM ET.

Mike’s Take: Kobe Returns

If there was any question as to whether the balance of power in the NBA has shifted from last year, the Lakers have done their best in the month of February to put that to rest. With their leading scorer and playmaker Kobe out for 18 days with injury, the Lakers simply went 4-1, including a road win against the streaking Jazz.  Only a narrow one-point loss to the Celtics rose against their record.

The icing on the cake came last night with the return of Kobe Bryant to the lineup. On the road against a Grizzlies team that has played the Lakers tough in recent games, Kobe scored the Lakers’ last nine points in an efficient 32-point outing highlighted by yet another game winning jump shot in the closing seconds.

The implications of the Lakers’ recent streak are more significant than the impact on their overall record. With Kobe sidelined, the Lakers’ other marquee players demonstrated a confidence and swagger that is sometimes missing. The bench also performed to a higher level than it has during any stretch of play this year, perhaps sensing the urgency that Kobe wasn’t around to close games out. Add to this the best fourth quarter performer in the game (who is now rested and healthier than at any point this season) and one can understand why the rest of the league may be taking notice.

While it is often the case that a team rallies in the short-term when a star player goes down, there seems to be something more far-reaching about LA’s latest streak. However, there remains a lot of basketball to be played, and the Lakers still need to put everything together into a cohesive, consistent package. If they manage to do so, we may well be looking at a repeat NBA champion.

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Lakers will meet the new and improved Mavericks tonight at 9 PM ET.