In round 2 of the Western Conference Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns were matched up against their long time nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. Despite Phoenix's superiority in just about every statistical metric available, and a 4 game cushion in their regular season record, the Spurs were considered the favorites. Why? Because Phoenix just can't beat the Spurs. For years, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns would rack up one of the best records in the NBA, only to find the Spurs ready to end their season in the most painful way. From 2005-2008, the Suns played the Spurs 3 times in the postseason, and won a combined 4 games in those 3 series.
But, to just say the Suns lost to the Spurs fails to capture the agony suffered at the hands of Tim Duncan and company. The list of memorable, painful, moments is quite long: The Tim Duncan 3, the Steve Nash bloody nose game, and of course, the infamous Robert Horry hip-check, just to name a few. So, there was plenty of precedent for all the experts to pick against the Suns as they faced off against an all too familiar foe. However, instead of wilting, the Suns shined brighter than ever, vanquishing the Spurs and their inner demons in an impressive 4 game sweep, complete with Nash leading the Suns to victory in Game 4 with an all too familiar bloody, swollen, eye. One can only imagine the experience was cathartic for the Suns and their fans.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, just as they vanquished one demon, another has jumped right into place. As far as the Suns are concerned, gold is the new black, and purple is the new silver. And this Lakers team doesn't need cheap tricks and swollen faces to get the job done.
For five years, the Lakers have had more success than their talent would normally dictate against the Suns. 5 years ago, that meant taking a 3-1 lead in the 1st round of the playoffs despite counting on significant contributions from Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Since the 2008 season, when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol and tipped the balance of talent in this match-up, the Suns have been treated to non-stop domination at the hands of the Purple and Gold, 9-3 in the regular season over the past three years.
"But the Suns are a changed team!! Those past results don't matter now. Look at what they did to San Antonio. If they can finally get over that hump, they can do anything. They play some defense now, and they rebound better, and they are as unstoppable as ever on offense!"
If Game 1's annihilation, 128-107, is any indication, the Suns are exactly the same team that the Lakers have been dominating for the last three years. There's no need to re-write the book on how to beat the Suns (a book that Phil Jackson may have authored, by the way), so much as there might be a need to write the epilogue for the Spurs. Meanwhile, the Suns "defense and rebounding" is like a Wikipedia page that has yet to be verified with legitimate sources. I'm not saying it's a lie, but there needs to be verifiable proof before I'll start believing it. The keys to beating Phoenix are still exactly the same. Control the pace. Take advantage of their complete lack of interior defense to be efficient on offense. Limit opportunities in transition. Break their rhythm, and then watch as the 3's which normally fall like rain don't connect quite the same. There aren't many teams in basketball more equipped to handle that strategy then the Lakers.
It's just one game, and things can change at the snap of one's fingers. The Suns are sure to make adjustments, and adjustmensts are what the playoffs are all about. But it's not just one game. This game fit perfectly into the mold that has been forged in years past. It's not an outlier. It's not an unusual circumstance. This is exactly what Suns vs. Lakers has become. The Lakers are the Suns' new nemesis, their new demon, terrorizing them with height, skill, and championship pedigree. And sadly for the Suns, this is no fairy tale.
This demon won't be vanquished.