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Lakers 111, Suns 103: All Your Conference Titles Are Belong to Kobe

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If there's one thing the Los Angeles Lakers know how to do, it's finish off a playoff series on the road. Tonight, for the third time this season and the seventh in the Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol era, the Lakers roared into an opponents' building for a close-out game and silenced the locals with a series-clinching win. This time the home-invasion victims were the Phoenix Suns, another in a growing pile of Western Conference pretenders brought to their knees by the purple and gold. With a 111 to 103 victory, the Lakers subdued Phoenix in six games and reaffirmed their hegemony in the West. The NBA Finals start five days from now at Staples Center against the Boston Celtics.

As they did basically the entire conference finals, the Lakers tore the supposedly new-look Phoenix defense limb from limb. They were spitting fire right out of the gate, scoring 37 points in the first quarter, one of their best offensive periods of the season. In the second and third quarters they knuckled down on D to build an 18-point lead. Credit the Suns for not totally folding down the stretch. They pulled themselves together for one final, desperate run, and they managed to cut the lead down to three with a couple minutes remaining, but from there Kobe did the sort of thing that has permanently attached the phrase Best Closer in the Game to his identity, scoring eight of his 37 points to end the Suns' season. It was another lethal and majestic performance from the Black Mamba. Far from showing any ill effects from the injuries that hampered his play this year, he's peaking just in time to spearhead the Lakers' charge for another NBA banner. Celtics, consider yourselves warned.

In this series and this game, Phoenix just couldn't stop the Laker offense. The Suns were a bad defensive team this season, and triumphs over a Portland Trail Blazers team depleted by injuries and an arthritic San Antonio Spurs squad didn't change that fundamental fact. At times the Lakers used their size advantage to dominate in the post. At times their role players stepped up to make key outside shots. At all times they crushed Phoenix on the offensive glass. At no time did the Suns have anyone who could stifle the creativity and shot-making brilliance of Kobe Bryant. I mean.... Grant Hill?? Were people seriously making that argument two weeks ago?


Kobe leveled the Suns with 37 points on 30 shots tonight (using the term shots to include free-throw possessions), committing only two turnovers in the process. It was a premium blend of turnarounds, baseline fadeaways and deep threes, many of the "you can't do anything to stop that" variety. Twenty-five of his points came in the second half, when the Laker offense occasionally bogged down. Toward the end of the third and again in fourth-quarter crunch time, his heroics sucked the air of the Suns' comeback attempts.

With Pau looking a step slow and unsure of himself, it was left to Ron Artest to be the unlikely second option on offense. Once again he repped Queensbridge hard. Ron punished the Suns time after time for leaving him open, scoring 17 first-half points and 25 for the game. His shooting slump is now definitively in the past, and his performance in this series will force the Celtics to account for him on the defensive end. We never know exactly what we'll get from Ron, but clearly he's ready to be a factor.

Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic likewise came up with some timely outside shots. They combined to make 3 of 5 from behind the arc. Who would've guessed that the Lakers would outshoot the Suns from three in this series? Over the six games, the Lakers as a team shot 52 of 141 (37%) on their longballs, compared to 49 for 149 (33%) by Phoenix. Not only did the Lakers neutralize the Suns' advantage in outside shooting, they completely flipped it around on them.

A constant in this series was the Lakers' ownership of the offensive boards. Tonight they rebounded 34% of their own misses en route to 11 second-chance points. In none of the six games did they post an offensive rebounding rate below 31%. (The league average this season was 26%.) What the hell does Amare Stoudemire even do when he's supposed to be guarding his defensive glass? In Game Five he had three defensive boards in 35 minutes. Tonight he played 43 minutes and pulled in all of two defensive rebounds. That's some deplorable work from someone who purports to be a power forward.


The Suns were OK on offense this evening. OK, unfortunately for them, isn't close to good enough against the Lakers. Steve Nash (21 points in 12 shots) did his usual thing, shooting with great efficiency but not in great volume. Amare compensated for a poor night from the field by making 13 of 15 from the line. Goran Dragic had a scoring burst toward the beginning of the fourth period after he floppingly induced a flagrant foul call against Sasha, and Channing Frye continued his climb from the depths of hell by contributing 12 points on seven attempts. But subpar three-point shooting from Jason Richardson (2 for 6), Leandro Barbosa (1 for 3) and Dragic (0 for 3) prevented the Suns from keeping pace with the blistering Lake Show. They were also largely shut down on the offensive glass. After scoring five second-chance points in the first period, they scored only four the rest of the game, and on the night their offensive rebounding rate was a paltry 23%.

And with that, we bid farewell to the Phoenix Suns. They were worthy opponents but lacked the size and defensive talents to throw the Lakers off their game. Their season, which was so much better than almost anyone anticipated, dies at the hands of Kobe Bryant. There's no dishonor in that.

Boston, you're next.











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