So, time for yet another round of the now surely world-famous Silver Screen and Roll Positional Previews. Except, this isn't just any positional preview, these are the Western Conference Finals SPECIAL EDITION!!! What does that mean, exactly? In short, nothing, except that instead of Utah or Oklahoma City, the opposition in this series are the Phoenix Suns (heathen barbarians they are). In long? Once again, nothing really, except I just may be weaving in an extra-thick layer of crazy into this sexy silk tapestry of an article.
I really wish I had the pro web design skills to run a positional preview like the brilliant fellows at SBNation resident Spurs Blog, Pounding The Rock, but alas, I am simply not skilled enough. Also, the fact that I don't have an extended offseason to learn new things in like PTR has (sorry, Spurs fans, just didn't feel right to pay a compliment without an attached dig =]] ) may play a role. As such, this shall simply follow a similar format to my prior previews. Except, it will be better, somehow, as apparently the world is now watching the Lakers and all associated with them closer than ever (really, is it physically possible to get any closer?).
Well, enough sycophantic preamble, actual position-by-position preview of the NBA Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers of California and the Phoenix Suns of Arizona, after the jump (so... many... proper nouns...).
Well, this series is an anomaly in the NBA in that both teams are, for the most part, healthy. Sasha Vujacic is reported to be returning from his ankle injury in Game 1, and Robin Lopez's back should be healthy enough for him to start Game 1, as reported by ESPN. With these two back, neither team is missing any player likely to receive minutes, and thus there are no excuses for either team. Some players are playing through injury, such as Steve Nash, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant, and some are recovering, but all are able to dress and step onto the court.
The Lakers have a size advantage over the Suns, as they do over seemingly every team in this League. The Suns' starting frontline consists of the 6'10, 250lb Amare Stoudemire and the 7'0, 255lb Lopez, which is slightly above average in terms of size compared to the league norm, but still smaller than the Lakers. It goes without saying, Los Angeles should exploit this.
The key position the Lakers need to key in on in this series is, quite painfully obviously, point guard. The Suns start the wizened yet still ridiculously effective Steve Nash, one of the premier point guards in this League, or so I've been told; whilst we start the indeterminably intangible Derek Fisher. While Derek Fisher's level of play has, as per usual, stepped up in the playoffs, there is simply no way he can compensate for his age and lack of speed on defense, and thus the Lakers must make a concerted team effort to limit Nash's effectiveness without giving up the three.
Anyways, on to position-by-position:
CENTER: Andrew Bynum vs Robin Lopez
This matchup all depends on which Andrew Bynum we see. Andrew Bynum before and directly after his injury was beasting it, putting up double-doubles and throwing down nasty dunks. However, in his last two games, Drew seemed a bit out of it. Whether it was entirely the knee, or if he was just having trouble focusing, nobody but him knows, but it is certainly troubling that he claimed to 'not even remember playing' in Game 3 last series. Evidently, the pain has the tendency to disconcert him at times. If Bynum does play as he was in the first two games of the Utah series, this is a matchup Los Angeles wins. Robin Lopez is a young big man, and Game 1 will be his first taste of playoff action due to his back injury holding him out of the first two rounds. Andrew Bynum has advantages in experience, skill, athleticism, and size. Only his injury can hold him back here, otherwise he should work to exploit this matchup. When Lopez goes to the bench, Andrew may be taken out of his comfort zone and have to defend Channing Frye out on the perimeter, but Phil is a smart coach and will most likely manage his already-limited minutes so that his time on Frye is minimized, and switch Drew onto Amare from time-to-time to try and bother Stoudemire with Andrew's size. It's worked at some times during the regular season series, and hasn't worked at other times. We'll have to wait and see how this strategy fares in the playoffs, if indeed Phil uses it.
POWER FORWARD: Pau Gasol vs. Amare Stoudemire
Well, Pau Gasol needs no introduction. After some criticism earlier on in the season for milking time off from his hamstring injuries, and then slumping soon after that, Pau has found the right time to peak. He has been absolutely dominant to the tune of 20 and 13 over the playoffs - those are Dwight Howard-esque numbers, people; and is one of the hottest players in the league right now, having averaged 23.5/14.5/2.75 against Utah on 60% from the field and 87% from the line (did I miss the memo that we traded for Hakeem Olajuwon?). However, in Amare, he meets one of the few bigs who are truly playing to superstar calibre. Amare hasn't been playing as well as Pau, but he'll certainly be a tougher matchup than Carlos Boozer or Jeff Green. His numbers have oddly dropped significantly during the Playoffs, to 20.5/7 on 51% shooting as opposed to 23/9 on 54% shooting in the regular season, but he still poses a challenge with his quickness and athleticism. Amare is one end of the Suns' deadliest half-court offensive weapon, the Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll, and Pau Gasol's ability to show and recover will have a great influence on Los Angeles' ability to contain the Phoenix point-production machine. Offensively, Pau still has a pretty major size advantage on Amare, and can take him to the low block for points, tiring him out in the process. Pau's size also negates most of the effectiveness Amare would have in the low post, relegating him to an off-ball finisher, midrange shooter and a part of the aforementioned pick-and-roll.
Most Suns fans will be quick to bring up Grant Hill's emergence as a defensive force as the prime reason for their significantly improved defense, and any Lakers fan will immediately recognise Ron's role as the Lakers' defensive stopper, signed specifically to shut down star opposing wings. While Richardson isn't a star, he's certainly been playing like one of late, putting up 22 and 6 off 51% from the field and a murderous 52% from deep through the playoffs. Similarly, Grant Hill isn't a true defensive specialist in the mold of Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, Shane Battier or Thabo Sefolosha, but he's the best the Suns got, and one would assume they'd rather not tire out their offensive star JRich by enlisting him to defend Kobe (who's apparently putting quite a few points on the board himself). As such, it's logical to assume that these two matchups will switch, and this preview shall work off this assumption.
WING 1: Ron Artest vs. Jason Richardson
Jason Richardson is averaging 21.9 points per game in the Playoffs. 10.2 of them come from his 3.4 made threes a game. Therefore, the key to defending him is simple, RUN HIM OFF THE LINE. Don't ever let him get his feet set, or catch in rhythm. Don't lose him on screens, don't even give him an inch. Avoid helping off him whenever possible. Stick with him. If by some bizarre fail, he ever ends up with the ball in his hands behind the arc and no defender on him, everyone within 8 metres run at him. The 6.6 threes he's attempting a game are netting him 10.2 points, whilst the 8.5 two-pointers he takes a game are only gaining him 8.6 points. He doesn't get to the line too often, only 4 times a game, so that's not too much of an issue. The key is simply not letting him get threes. Kobe has a tendency to roam and play 'free safety', while Artest has been occasionally criticised over his career for overplaying on his man to the detriment of the team defensive scheme. In this case, Ron is definitely the way to go defensively against JRich. Offensively, Ron has a pretty significant size advantage on Richardson, to the tone of an inch and 30 pounds or more, and should continue to look to post up through the offense, tiring Richardson in the process.
WING 2: Kobe Bryant vs. Grant Hill
Grant Hill, suddenly a defensive specialist? I mean, this guy is 37, yeah? It's one thing to defend Manu Ginobli, who is a crafty and deceptive scorer; but another completely to defend Kobe Bryant, a transcendent offensive player and a superior physical specimen. Grant Hill possesses a rather significant size advantage over Kobe, a full two inches, and thus the correspondent length/wingspan/whateverthefashionabletermisthesedays. However, Kobe has an undeniable speed advantage over Hill, the boon of having 6 years' of youth on Hill. Hill may be a wily veteran and less likely to fall for Kobe's fakes as most defenders, but Kobe has made a career out of being able to score even with whole team defensive schemes geared to stop him, and as such Grant Hill, while being able to limit him, will not be able to do any more than the likes of a Shane Battier or Ron Artest, at best. Defensively, Kobe will likely be faced with a few post-ups, giving up size as he does to Hill, but Hill is not a focal point of the Phoenix offense and thus shouldn't work Kobe too hard on this end. Hill, a subpar sniper from deep over his career, possessed a highly unusual 44% mark from deep for the regular season, but is yet to hit a three these playoffs. I see free safety from Kobe. It pains me, but in this case is somewhat understandable.
POINT GUARD: Derek Fisher vs. Steve Nash
Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew, ew. Ew. Ew, ew, EW. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's continue. Derek Fisher's offensive production has gone up through these playoffs - particularly of note is his jump in three-point percentage -and Steve Nash is a sieve on defense so there's no reason to believe this disappears. But it's on the other end that Fish is still phenomenally, woefully subpar and Nash phenomenally, unbelievably great. Fisher's lack of speed is simply impossible to overcome, and always puts the Lakers on the back foot in having to center their defensive game plan around how to stop guard penetration. Nash, meanwhile, is and has been the orchestrator of the greatest point-scoring machine of this decade, and even at age 36 shows no signs of letting up. He's still one of the top-3 point guards in this league, and will undoubtedly tear Fisher up, driving into the seams of the Los Angeles defense to either score or scramble them so much that a teammate is left wide open for one of Nash's masterful passes. Nash's distribution of production has somewhat shifted from the regular season to the postseason, as he is now being more aggressive, scoring more and passing less, thus garnering more points and sacrificing assists. His regular season numbers were 16.5/11, whilst his playoff numbers are 17.8/9. Expect the best of both worlds in this series, considering who's defending him.
Still, maybe old man Fisher's intangibles cause Nash to choke. Maybe.
BENCH: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
The Lakers' Bench, led by sixth man Lamar Odom, is a wildly inconsistent bunch. The Suns' bench is the best in these playoffs. I'm sure you've all heard that. Leandro Barbosa has been a staple of this league for years, and contended for the Sixth Man of the Year award on several occasions, winning it in '07. Channing Frye's emergence with the Suns and his proficiency as a three-point shooter was a topic of many a discussion earlier on in the season. Louis Amundson is simply a hard-nosed player, even if his effectiveness has been minimal through these playoffs. Jared Dudley is a decent player and can be deadly from three at times. And Goran Dragic... well, Doc Funk said it best. Every single one of them is better at their position than our counterpart except the big men - both Channing Frye and Louis Amundson combined are still less than Lamar Odom. Other than that, Barbosa > Brown, Dragic > Farmar, Dudley > Walton or Sasha. Sometimes, the Lakers bench can magically play as a unit, and resemble the feared Bench Mob of old. When they do so, they are superior to the Phoenix bench. But does that happen often? About as often as Goran Dragic dropping 23 points in a half. Often, a single bench player or two will heat up whilst playing with the starters, and give an unexpected boost. When that happens, that can somewhat balance the difference in play of the benches, but even that is far from a certainty.
Over the years, Phil's had a lot of experience playing against the SSoL offense, and as such has strategies he can implement against it more effective than most. Essentially, his core strategy is to pound it inside. Not only does this exploit the Lakers' size advantage, but it allows for fewer long rebounds that can spark a fast break. Defensively, he has to trust everyone else to cover their matchup and simply focus on a game plan to limit Nash, the only true positional advantage the Suns possess. The Suns actually play some defense, these days, so some offensive execution would be nice. Phil's had a history of being able to trouble Mike D'Antoni teams, even back when the Lakers, aside from Kobe, has less talent than Dwayne Wade's supporting cast. Alvin Gentry is Mike D'Antoni's student, and the Lakers now have the talent advantage. Thus, in theory, this should be a clear-cut matchup. Phil's only true challenge is how to rest the starters without allowing the bench to wreak total havoc.
In the end, there's little to support SBNation Resident Phoenix Suns blog Bright Side Of The Sun's view that the Suns will win in 6. The only position they hold a true advantage at is Point Guard, and Steve Nash alone cannot win them the series. Jason Richardson is scoring like mad, but it's not exactly off a series of thrilling moves and midrange shots, but rather just that he's caught on fire from deep, and Ron Artest seems ripe to give him a reality check after the boring matchup of C.J Miles. Amare Stoudemire is gonna pose as the first real challenge to Pau Gasol in a while, but Pau Gasol is bigger and simply has far more skills and moves. As long as Pau can successfully show and recover on the screen-and-roll, that's taken care of. Grant Hill, good luck to you in stopping Kobe. The man is on a mission, and he still remembers those first round exits. Robin Lopez is coming back from injury, and simply doesn't match up to Bynum skillwise, either. The Suns' bench is far superior to the Lakers' bench, but a point guard and a bench do not 4 victories make. On paper, the Lakers have too many significant matchup advantages to be countered. But there's a reason why they play the games.