North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Sunset in LA – notes on the NBA’s western finals

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Suns forward Grant Hill really, really didn’t want to lose on Wednesday night. As trite as that sounds – what athlete wants to lose – it was true. Hill was automatic, especially from midrange.

Take the pass, take a quick shot, watch it rattle around and fall down. He had a real stroke going , finishing 10 of 17 for 23 points; in the second half, he only missed three shots.

He was a big part of the Suns second-half comeback, when they rallied and tied game two of these Western Finals near the end of the third quarter.

Then, as good teams are wont to do, the Lakers jerked back, pulling away en route to a 124-114 win.

Wednesday night was a dominant showing for the Lakers, who now lead the series two games to none. They seemed to toy with the Suns, let them back in the game on Hill’s hot shooting. And when they had to, they changed gears, leaving the Suns in their wake.

Don’t let the hype fool you. These Lakers are good, as good as any team they’ve had in the past few seasons. Both of the games against the Suns have looked close on paper, but they’ve been disguised blowouts. Even a nine point lead feels sucure when it’s for the Lakers.

This postseason, the Suns have gotten two boosts from the media, two reasons why they may finally make the NBA Finals. One is their depth, that the Suns are no longer five or six players deep. The second is their defence, that they can keep other teams at bay.

The first is true to an extent. This season’s team is deeper then any I can remember from the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less era, although they’ve been lucky not to have any major injuries. Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic have both been great for the Suns off the bench.

In the first two games, the Lakers have taken the second reason and pummeled it. Thus far in these Western Finals, the Suns gave up 128 and 124 points. That’s 20 more points then they had given up in any game from the first or second rounds. They hadn’t allowed that many points in a game since Janurary.

Why? The Suns are being pummeled, destroyed on the inside. The tandem of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom seems to be too much for them to handle – in each game, Gasol has had a rich man’s double double (at least 10 shots made and at least 10 rebounds). At the same time, Odom’s had his two best games of the playoffs: 19 points and 19 boards in game one, 17 and 11 in game two.

And that’s all on top of Kobe Bryant‘s two good nights: 40 points in game one, 21 points and 13 assists in game two.

Try as they might, the Suns have no answer for what happening to them, not on the court, not on paper. What are they supposed to do? Amare is having a hell of a time guarding Gasol and Robin Lopez still seems sluggish and maybe out of form; he was gone for over a month, so his troubles shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

For all their depth, I’m not sure how – or if – they can match up against LA, especially down low. In both games, the Lakers have shot above .500 (they’ve come close to shooting .580).  As damaging as that is, what’s worse is how much of it has come from inside; in both games, the Lakers have scored more then 50 points in the paint.

In this way, the Lakers are able to pummel the Suns and exploit the “new & improved” defence; they have at least one strong inside presence on the court at all times in Odom and Gasol (and more often then not, they have both on the court). They’ve able exploit this and attack in close; if they get into trouble, they can kick it out to Kobe – going by ESPN’s shot charts for each game, most of his buckets are from at least 7 or so feet out.

The Suns, for all their accomplishments thus far, haven’t run into this kind of a wall – neither Portland nor San Antonio had this kind of size. The Suns defence that looked so goof against them doesn’t seem to be built against this kind of team.

This is to say nothing about LA’s defence. In the first and second rounds, Phoenix won every game where they scored 100 points or more. This round, they’ve put up over 100 in both of their losses.

To me, that speaks volumes about this season. It’s not being won by the Suns offense (or the Lakers defence), it’s being lost on the other side, by an offence that just keeps beating Phoenix senseless.

This is what depth looks like. This is what the difference between a contender and a champion looks like.

This is why the Lakers are winning this series a lot quicker then I imagined they would.

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Written by M.

May 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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