I’m done making predictions. The problem with picking who will win a playoff series is you just don’t know which teams will be playing. I don’t mean that in the well-yeah-I-would-have-picked-Michigan-State-if-I’d-known-they’d-be-playing-Tennessee sense. For example: we all knew the Celtics had a killer instinct lying somewhere latent in them during the regular season. But few guessed it would come out so suddenly and in such full force against the Cavs. After the regular seasons those two teams had, who would have predicted the Cavs would be the team that looked disjointed and complacent? Chemistry is a hard thing to forecast. But it plays a massive role in who wins in the playoffs. I predicted this WCF matchup in the Big Shot Rob tournament, and I had the Suns going through in 6. I’m not going back on that now. The Lakers have done a good job of patching up their well-known weaknesses, but the Suns haven’t let me down yet. As my grandpa used to tell me, once you find a money horse, you ride that horse until it flames out in 5 games in the conference finals.
So I’m not going to tell you how this series is going to turn out, at least not in terms of wins and losses. The Lakers have more meltdown potential, just based on regular-season infighting and the personalities on the team. But they’re also more ruthless, and have more experiencing overcoming potential distractions. It’s anybody’s guess who will win a series until we know which teams are showing up, but by keeping an eye on these items, you should get an idea of whether the teams that are competing are likely to win or lose the series.
How You Know the Lakers Will Win:
1. Their Bigs Can’t Be Stopped – It’s no secret that the Lakers’ offense is more efficient the more shots Pau Gasol is usurping from Kobe Bryant, and for that matter the more Ron Artest is passing up 3’s to find Andrew Bynum in good position. But Bryant and Artest love to shoot, and Gasol and Bynum are way too congenial to just yell “GIVE ME THE F’N BALL” in crunchtime. If the Lakers keep feeding the post, it’s unlikely that the Suns will be able to keep up. Their post options consist of Amar’e Stoudemire (a notoriously unenthusiastic defender), Channing Frye (a stringbean jump-shooter), Louis Amundson (nice hustle player, but without the offensive repertoire to stay on the court too long), Jarron Collins (anonymous; it might be Jason), and Robin Lopez (potentially crippled). To give you a sense of how obliging Phoenix’s post defense is, two of those guys went to Stanford.
2. They’re Winning the Little Battles – This is where the Zen Mastery comes into play. Everyone loves Alvin Gentry, and for good reason. He just completed his 3rd full season as a head coach, and he’s doing a great job. But Phil Jackson is one of the best to ever do it. Think of the undeniable roles Scott Skiles, Gregg Popovich, George Karl (via absence), and Mike Brown have played in games being won and lost in this postseason. If the Lakers are controlling facets of the games–stopping Phoenix runs, getting favorable matchups, maximizing points at the ends of quarters–they’re listening to Phil. And combined with the talent they have on the court, it makes them nearly impossible to stop.
3. They’re Preventing Second-Chance Points – The Lakers rebound better than the Suns do; you probably don’t need to see numbers to be convinced of that. During the regular season, they were top 10 in the NBA in defensive rebounding, securing 74.4% of available rebounds, while the Suns were 29th at 70.8%. What might surprise you is that the teams were dead even on the offensive glass, each team getting 27.6% of available boards. Nonetheless, people are expecting the Lakers to ride their size to a substantial rebounding margin. Based on Phoenix’s defensive rebounding numbers, the Lakers should be able to get a decent number of second-chance points themselves. The better they can stop Phoenix from doing the same, the better their chances of reaching the Finals will be.
How You Know the Suns Will Win:
1. They’re Wearing the Lakers Down – This is where Phoenix’s depth could be crucial. The Lakers’ reserves are suspect at best. Aside from Lamar Odom–who plays a starter’s minutes even when coming off the bench–their most reliable subs are Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. Not a great sign. The Suns, meanwhile, have a deep and versatile bench that has some notable contributors–Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley–but also plays as more than the sum of its parts because the players in the second unit have such extensive experience playing together. The Suns pulling away from the Spurs in Game 3 of their series without Jason Richardson or Amare Stoudemire playing a 4th quarter minute–or Nash checking in until there were 3 minutes left–was a defining moment of this postseason. It’s no secret that the Lakers are getting pretty long in the tooth; if the Suns can use their depth to keep them working for 48 minutes, they’ll have a great chance of advancing.
2. Nash Is Running Wild – If the whole game was played on offense, Steve Nash would be one of the best players ever. It’s the other side of the ball that’s holding him back. In a way, then, this is the perfect series for him. Derek Fisher isn’t a threat off the dribble, so as long as Nash can stay close and stop him from getting wide open 3’s, he can essentially save his energy for the offensive end. The ageless wonder is playing some of the best ball of his career right now. His shot is falling even when he can only see out of one eye. It will be interesting to see how the Lakers try to defend him. Maybe Shannon Brown will play more minutes to try to keep him working on defense. Kobe might switch over on Nash, but that could potentially mean an easier matchup for Jason Richardson, who’s been lights out as of late. The Lakers will simply have to pick their poison. The decision they make–and the domino effect it has on the rest of their matchups–might just sway the series Phoenix’s way.
3. They’re Setting the Tempo – There’s a reason the Suns had more trouble dispatching the Blazers in Round 1 than the Spurs in Round 2, and it has nothing to do with the Blazers being a higher seed (really, even if the Blazers had a healthy Brandon Roy, wouldn’t you be more worried about facing the Spurs)? The Blazers, who played at the slowest pace of any team in the regular season (87.7 possessions/48 minutes), were probably the worst possible matchup for Phoenix, which played at the 3rd-fastest pace (95.3/48). The Lakers were in the middle of the pack (14th at 92.8/48), so it’s conceivable that they could go in either direction–they can play fast or slow, and don’t typically have a preference. If they can be lured into a track meet type of game, however, they’re playing right into the Suns’ hands. As much faith as you might have in your offense, you just can’t try to race Phoenix to 120 points; they play that game better than you do. The more L.A. can be coaxed into playing above their usual pace, the better Phoenix’s chances of advancing are.
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