Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals made one thing abundantly clear: unless the Suns are able to come up with some truly remarkable performances, the Lakers will win this series. L.A. is so talented and so long that they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt in almost every regard, and barring a transcendent performance from Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix will lose.
Call it cheap analysis if you will, but the Lakers are better. They are not going to melt down in this series, which puts the onus on the Suns. It’s up to Phoenix to somehow stop the unstoppable force in purple and gold and manage to see the sky through the trees.
I wouldn’t say Game 1 was necessarily par for the course (the Lakers’ offense scored at a rate of 139.1 points per 100 possessions, a truly scorching level of efficiency) but L.A.’s dominance in their 128-107 victory was not unfounded.
Los Angeles has a much better shot at stopping Phoenix’s offense than vice versa, and the Lakers exposed that painful truth in their complete dissection of the Suns’ vaunted, improved defense. Kobe’s 40 has to be the centerpiece, and his 21-point third quarter was the type of noteworthy performance that so frequently gets lost in the playoff shuffle. If the Lakers go on to win the championship, few will remember Bryant’s 21-point Q on a mid-May night, no matter how it demoralized the Suns’ defenders.
That said, we may not see a more singularly dominant stretch of basketball from any Laker this postseason, and for that Kobe deserves to be recognized. Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Jason Richardson all did their best to defend Bryant. They fought for position, tried to deny, and challenged shots. It didn’t matter, because Kobe is so, so good at what he does. When Bryant is in that special place, the bucket is less a possible outcome and more an inevitability. That’s what the Suns were charged with stopping tonight, and it’s what the Jazz failed to stop at times in their four-game out in the previous round.
I’d love to say that Kobe is destined for a fall back to earth at some point, but the guy has scored 30+ in every game he’s played since April 27th. He’s done it with plenty of time off and just a day off, at home and away, by shooting 45% from the field or better, against three different opponents, and with one notable constant: winning. Kobe is putting up impressive totals and guiding the Lakers to the promised land, two results that have not always coincided. During this playoff run however, they seem almost inextricable, with just two of the Lakers’ nine wins coming in sub-30-point performances for Bryant.
As always seems to be the case with these Lakers, he wasn’t alone. Lamar Odom (19 points, 19 rebounds) was ridiculously effective, and looked right at home working against Amar’e Stoudemire. Pau Gasol wasn’t nearly as good on the boards (or rather, didn’t have to be as good on the boards), but had 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
Those two players best exemplified the problems with the Suns’ defense; Hill et al’s defense on Bryant may have been an exercise in futility, but the Suns’ D on Odom and Gasol was more of a demonstration of their ineptitude. Even if you buy the argument that the Suns are improved on defense this season, those improvements amounted to nothing against players as skilled, as versatile, and as big as Gasol and Odom.
Throw in some beautiful discretion from Ron Artest, better-than-expected defense from Derek Fisher, and solid play from the Lakers’ bench, and it would be a wonder if the Lakers didn’t win in a walk.
Los Angeles wasn’t exactly perfect on defense, though, even if they did manage to prevent Phoenix from scoring at maximum efficiency. The Suns benefited from a balanced offensive performance, featuring six double-digit scorers who were able to attack the Lakers’ D in a variety of ways. However, the Lakers’ true battle was fought — and won — against the Suns’ pick-and-roll.
Robin Lopez (14 points 6-7 FG, six rebounds) looked great rolling to the rim and working the offensive glass, but even his impressive playoff debut wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers’ smothering of Steve Nash and assault on the passing lanes. Phoenix found ways to move the ball, but the great looks the Suns are accustomed to getting were merely good ones, and considering Phoenix’s considerable defensive troubles, that was more than enough to drop Game 1 into L.A.’s lap.
As I mentioned before, Steve Nash (13 points, 13 assists, four turnovers) and Amar’e Stoudemire (23 points, just three boards) can’t just show up and play. They have to seriously perform if Phoenix is going to have any shot in this series. They’ll need to execute tirelessly on the offensive end, not only to provide the bulk of the offense, but to open up the game for the Suns’ shooters. In a sense, you have a situation in Phoenix similar to that in Orlando, only instead of relying on Dwight Howard’s interior dominance as an offensive foundation, this team relies on the Nash-Stoudemire tandem.
Without that regular offensive threat, the Suns shooters were blanketed on the perimeter, as evidenced by the team’s 22.7% shooting from beyond the arc. That’s more than just a cold night, even if every miss from the perimeter can’t be attributed to L.A.’s close-outs. Jared Dudley (1-5 3FG) and Channing Frye (1-7 3FG) were forced into some contested looks and were out of rhythm when they finally found the space to fire unimpeded.
If you’re looking for one side of the ball to attribute blame, the offense wasn’t it for Phoenix. The Suns’ offensive efficiency in this game (116.3 points per 100 possessions) was actually higher than their season average. As I mentioned before though, the Suns will have to be good enough on offense to make up for their major defensive flaws, and until we see even a spark of that in this series, the games will continue to default Lakers.