Lakers vs. Suns: A battle of diametrically opposed optimism

Ready for an impossible question?  Who's riding higher right now, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Phoenix Suns?

I certainly have no idea, and it's going to make for one hell of an interesting series.  In analyzing all the possible outcomes, I can't honestly take anything off the table.   A Lakers sweep?  Behind 21 feet of inside domination and a masterful performance from Kobe Bryant, yeah I could see that.  A Suns sweep?  With a bench playing better than a lot of starting units, an offensive staple (pick and roll) that is right in the Lakers weakness wheelhouse, and the best offense in the NBA, can you really rule it out?  Neither one is likely, but nothing in this series can be ruled out.  That's what happens when two teams who both look unbeatable square off.  It's the old adage about the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.  I'm not sure which one's which, and either way it doesn't matter.  Something's gotta give.

Can you blame Lakers fans for thinking this one's in the bag?  They've emerged from the depths of April to become the juggernaut we always thought them capable of being.  Tested far sooner than in previous years, the Lakers responded to the OKC challenge with resolve.  They've come up huge in two of the most intimidating environments the league has to offer, winning 3 of 5 on the road (and nearly a 4th as well).  They're undefeated at home, and have the home court advantage.  And their stars are playing like ... well, stars.  Pau Gasol's play has scoffed at the concept of "soft".  Kobe Bryant has found a perfect balance between assassin and distributor.  Oh, and he also showed quickness and athleticism in the last round that we weren't sure he still had.

All the question marks that plagued the Lakers season are being aced on the final exam.  Health?   Not perfect, but as long as Kobe can play like he's been playing, we're in fine shape there.  Complacency?  I won't tell you the Lakers go 100% all the time, but sweeps don't happen when you aren't trying.  Ability to shoot from outside?  I wouldn't call them good from distance, but go ahead and give them a free 3 pointer and see how that goes for you.  Offensive execution and ball movement?  Better than its been all season. 

And none of this is even touching on the obvious and substantial matchup advantages the Lakers have against the Phoenix Suns.  The Lakers have size that Phoenix will struggle to deal with, even if Robin Lopez can jump right back into being a serviceable pivot in the middle.  Grant Hill has re-invented himself as a strong perimeter defender, but checking Ginobli when he's struggling from the outside, and checking Kobe Bryant when his entire arsenal is at his disposal are two very different things.  And Phil Jackson has a history of preparing the Lakers for the Phoenix Suns better than any other coach.  That's why Laker teams so far below the Suns in talent were able to give Phoenix a struggle in the playoffs a few years back.  That's why the Lakers have routinely dominated the regular season matchup over the past few seasons, including this year's 3-1 mark.

If the Lakers could almost compete with the Suns while relying on Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, can the Suns keep up now that the Lakers are the ones with the talent advantage?  The Lakers have the players, they have the ability, they have the form, and they have the motivation as well.  Kobe Bryant hasn't forgotten losing to the Suns for two straight years.  He hasn't forgotten the feeling if getting blown out in Game 7 after being up 3-1 in the 2006 playoffs.  He will be looking for blood, and as he goes, so do the Lakers. 

Oh, and they also happen to be the defending champs, playing like they did to win chip numero uno, and with a better knowledge than anyone of what it takes to do the deed.  Good luck with that, Phoenix.

But what of the Suns fans?  Can you say their optimism is misplaced?  The Suns have been the best performing team in the Western Conference since the All-Star break.  This isn't some small 4 game sample size where things started turning around and now they just hope to keep it going.  The Lakers have been playing well for 3 weeks, but the Suns have been doing it for 3 months.  A sweep is a sweep, but the Lakers often toyed with the Jazz, and needed a missed shot and tip in to preserve a game 3 victory.  The Suns, on the other hand, never lost control of any game in the 4th quarter against the Spurs.   Of the two teams involved in this series, it would come as a greater surprise if the Suns crapped the bed than if the Lakers did. 

Phoenix responds to the Lakers matchup advantages with advantages of their own.  Are you looking forward to watching Derek Fisher guard Steve Nash?  Nope, me neither.  If the Lakers respond by putting Kobe on Nash, Fisher could get destroyed on post ups by the bigger and more athletic Jason Richardson or Grant Hill.   There's no place for Fisher to hide on defense in this series, no Thabo Sefalosha that allows him to chill for half the game.  Oh, and any time the Lakers prevent the Suns from scoring in transition, the Suns staple of offensive production is the pick and roll, which has only been a weakness of the Lakers defense since the Iron Age.  Throw a bench on top that is the most productive of these playoffs, as compared to a Lakers bench filled with players who have no concept of consistency.

What's more, the Suns are filled with a confidence even the Lakers can't match.  They just exorcised an entire era's worth of demons, and did so in commanding fashion.  The Spurs were Phoenix's nemisis, responsible for the failure and downfall of the Seven Second or Less era.  Now, SSOL is reborn and the Spurs have been consumed in the ashes.  You don't finally climb to the top of your own personal Mount Everest without thinking that anything is possible afterwards. 

Oh, and the Suns can play a little defense now too.  Not a lot, not enough that it bears out statistically in a meaningful way, but enough to allow their offensive prowess to overwhelm opponents even more than in the past.  It's spearheaded by tough-nosed bench crew, led by Louis Admundsen and Jared Dudley.  If you want proof, think about this:   Entering the 4th quarter of the last two games vs. the Spurs, the Suns carried only a 1 point lead.  They won those games by 14 and 6 respectively.  So tell me, which team was getting stops down the stretch and which team wasn't.  And, with the impending return of Robin Lopez, that defense will only improve over what the Suns have shown so far in the playoffs.

Clearly, both teams, and both fanbases, have every reason to be confident.  One side will have their confidence validated, and one side will have theirs smashed to pieces, with the first dose of reality set to hit next Monday.  In the meantime, go ahead and believe in your predicition of victory for the team of your choice.  But, while you are at it, do recognize that the other side probably doesn't agree with you, and their list of reasons why is just as long, and as strong, as yours.

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