Lakers/Suns Series Preview
The key to the series might not even be in attendance.
by Dennis Tarwood / @tuffyr
During the final games of the regular season and through two playoff rounds, Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry wearily parried away questions about a man lightly regarded by the league before the season began. No, we don’t know when Robin Lopez will be back. He’s working on his cardio. He has to regain the strength in his legs after the bulging disc ceases bulging. Day-to-day. Day-to-day.
Before Game 2 of the first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, an exasperated Gentry pointed at his office door for the assembled media’s benefit and sighed, “Robin Lopez is not walking through that door.” Not surprisingly, he didn’t.
However, after the epoch known as the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs, Robin Lopez will likely start Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, reclaiming his spot lost to injury and relieving Jarron Collins of his duty to collect personal fouls like Beanie Babies.
During his brief mid-season tenure as the Suns’ starting center, The Artist Formerly Known as the Other Lopez relieved Amar’e Stoudemire of the responsibility of handling post defensive duties on the most troublesome opponent each night, leaving him to roam as is his wont.
In turn, Lopez’s ability to keep pace with the Suns’ fast-break (and often start it with his rebounding prowess) kept him in the flow of the game even if every eight-footer was a thrill ride best avoided by pregnant women and small children.
While Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus rightly points out that the Suns weren’t wildly improved on defense with Lopez present, he did matter. On a team sporting two legitimate interior defenders (including Lopez), he evens the odds a bit. Will Andrew Bynum’s creaky right knee completely level the playing court?
On to the Good Captain. Kirk Hinrich enters the Summer of LeBron as a Chicago Bull, having avoided the Chicago-to-L.A. express that somehow has produced zero trades or signings despite Kobe Bryant’s dalliances with Jerry Reinsdorf and significant chatter about Hinrich joining the Lakers in a LeBron-related salary dump at the February trade deadline.
Having taken a long look at the luxury tax bill for last season and undoubtedly weighing the predictions last winter that the 2010-2011 salary cap would be roughly eighty-seven dollars (and no sense), the Lakers passed on the Good Captain and his defensive prowess, desiring financial flexibility much like the Suns once sought through such trades as Kurt Thomas for Stuff You’ve Got Lying Around.
Instead, the Lakers put their faith in Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown, undoubtedly hoping they wouldn’t have to deal with Tony Parker or Steve Nash in these playoffs. Especially Steve Nash.
Hi, Steve Nash.
Nash, who has been bumped, bullied, and chased by bigger and faster guards (and Tim Duncan’s eyeball-seeking elbow) for the first 10 games, now gets to spend quality time with Derek Fisher, who might as well ask Nash to send a postcard to let Fish know how he’s doing down there in the lane. Barring changes by Lakers helmsman Phil Jackson, Shannon Brown will endure large doses of Goran Dragic, he of the 23-point fourth quarter in Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs.
Jared Dudley and Grant Hill will serve as worthy road bumps to slow Kobe Bryant. Stoudemire and Lopez will keep Pau Gasol and Bynum busy if the Suns are forced to match the Lakers’ height. More often, the Suns will stay small with their ten-deep squad and show those gentlemen tail lights on the break.
Stoudemire will draw interior fouls, Jason Richardson will continue his rejuvenation, and that Suns bench (“The Suns’ Bench Is Better Than Yours”™ – me) will chase the Lakers out of the playoffs and sweep the Suns into an unexpected and thrilling NBA Finals.
All of which sounds simply charming, except the Lakers have a legitimate response for it all. The Lakers can run; Lamar Odom was practically woven in a cotton candy machine just for this purpose. And who’s covering Odom if Kobe’s occupying the time-defying Hill?
The Lakers have the best player on the court who causes his own matchup woes on offense and defense. The Lakers bested the Suns 3-1 in the season series with Lopez participating in three of those games. Phil Jackson has a little practice at this and is more apt at in-game adjustments than Gentry.
Also true: Robin Lopez will be walking through that door for Game 1 and Kirk Hinrich won’t. Cost certainty prevails and so does Phoenix. Suns in 6.