Thursday , Apr , 20 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

NBA Playoff Preview – Phoenix vs. LA Lakers

***** NBA Playoff Preview – Phoenix vs. LA Lakers *****
From The Sports Network

By Warren Blatt, NBA Editor

Phoenix Suns: 2nd Seed, West (54-28)

Los Angeles Lakers: 7th Seed, West (45-37)

(Sports Network) – The second-seeded Phoenix Suns and the No. 7 Los Angeles
Lakers should put on an entertaining, high-scoring best-of-seven series, as
they meet in the first round of the 2006 NBA Playoffs.

There is plenty of playoff history between the two clubs, as these teams have
met nine times in the postseason. The Lakers won seven of the nine meetings
and are 2-1 against the Suns in first round meetings.

The Lakers knocked out the Suns in the opening round of the playoffs in 1970
and 1985, while Phoenix eliminated LA in 1993. The Lakers won semifinal series
over the Suns in 1980, 1982 and 2000 and conference final sets in 1984 and
1989.

Besides their first round win over LA in 1993, the Suns also picked up a
playoff series win over the Lakers in the 1990 conference semifinals.

Phoenix won its second straight Pacific Division title crown. Last season, the
Suns finished a league-best 62-20 during the regular season. Phoenix had a
solid run in the 2005 playoffs, as it advanced to the Western Conference
finals for the first time since 1993, but was eliminated in five games by the
San Antonio Spurs, who defeated the Detroit Pistons in seven games in the
championship round.

The Suns had a great 2005-06 campaign with superstar forward Amare Stoudemire
only playing three games. Stoudemire, who averaged 8.7 points and 5.3
rebounds, was not able to recover fully from a left knee injury.

Reigning MVP Steve Nash, who was second on the team in scoring (18.8 ppg) and
led the league in assists (10.5 apg) for a second straight year, continued his
stellar play. He once again made all of his teammates better with his
incredible play-making ability and led a high-powered offensive attack that is
deadly from the outside and in transition.

All-Star forward Shawn Marion had his best season. He led the club in scoring
(21.8 ppg) and rebounding (11.8 rpg), both of which were career-highs. Along
with Nash, Marion gave the Suns one of the most exciting one-two punches in
the league.

Marion and Nash got a lot of help from their supporting cast. Guards Leandro
Barbosa, Raja Bell, and Eddie House, swingman Boris Diaw, forwards James Jones
and Tim Thomas, who played 29 games for the Suns this season, and center Kurt
Thomas make the Suns arguably the deepest team in the league.

Kurt Thomas averaged 8.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 53 games for the Suns this
season. He is expected to miss the first round with a stress fracture in his
right foot.

The last time the Suns lost in the first round was in the 2003 playoffs, when
they were eliminated in six games, 4-2, by San Antonio. Phoenix is appearing
in the postseason for a second straight year after missing the playoffs in
2003-04 because of a poor 29-53 record.

The Lakers return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Last season, the
Lakers finished just 34-48 and missed the playoffs for the first time since
1994. In their last trip to the postseason, the Lakers advanced to the 2004
NBA Finals, only to lose in five games to the Detroit Pistons.

Superstar Kobe Bryant had an MVP-type season, while head coach Phil Jackson
returned to the Lakers after a one-year hiatus. The Lakers also got a decent
season from forward Lamar Odom and a surprising campaign from guard Smush
Parker, who is a serious candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Bryant, who scored an unbelievable 81 points on January 22nd against Toronto,
makes his first trip to the postseason without All-Star center Shaquille
O’Neal, who was traded to Miami in July 2004, by his side. An eight-time All-
Star, Bryant will try and prove that he can carry a team solo in the playoffs.

The 27-year-old Bryant, who won three championships with O’Neal and Jackson
(1999, 2000, 2001), led the league in scoring (35.4 ppg) this season. He was a
one-man show and continued to build his legacy with his clutch performances.

Odom, who acquired from Miami as part of the Shaq trade, was second on the
club in scoring (14.8 ppg) and led the Lakers in rebounding (9.2 rpg) and
assists (5.5 apg). The 6-4 Parker, who has also played for Cleveland, Detroit
and Phoenix, surprised most with his excellent season, as he played in all 82
games for the Lakers and averaged 11.5 points and 3.7 assists per contest.

Center Chris Mihm missed 23 games due to injury this season. The Texas product
was a warrior for the Lakers when he was in the lineup. He was tough down low,
grabbing rebounds and scoring in the post. Mihm is an important player for the
Lakers.

Forward Kwame Brown, who was acquired by the Lakers in a trade with Washington
during last offseason, kept improving as the season progressed, while Brian
Cook, Devean George and Luke Walton contributed at times during the season.

The last time the Lakers lost in the first round was in 1996, when they fell
in four games, 3-1, to the Houston Rockets.

During the regular season, the Suns won three of the four meetings between the
clubs. Phoenix was a perfect 2-0 at home, while the teams split a pair at the
Staples Center.

FRONTCOURT:

Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas and Brian Grant will most likely be the starting trio
for the Suns up front. Marion will be expected to carry the scoring load,
while Thomas is capable of putting up big numbers if he is in the right mind
set. Anything the 34-year-old Grant gives Phoenix is a bonus.

The 6-8 Jones is a threat from the perimeter and can score in bunches, while
6-11 Pat Burke will be asked to bang down low and do some dirty work around
the basket.

Diaw is a major factor for the Suns up front. He is very versatile and can
play all three positions up front if needed. The 6-8 Diaw can score in the
paint, is a solid passer and can knock down a 15-to-18 foot jumper.

A healthy Mihm is critical for the Lakers’ frontcourt. He does a lot of the
little things that helps teams win in the postseason. The 7-0 Mihm, who has
played in just four playoff games during his career, is strong off the boards
and can score around the hoop.

The 6-10 Odom, who has participated in 13 postseason contests, is versatile.
He can handle the rock, is a solid passer and can drain the outside jumper. It
is critical for him to be consistent and help Bryant handle the scoring load
in the playoffs

Brown, Cook and Walton are all role players. Now would be a great time for the
6-11 Brown, who is a former first-overall pick of Washington, to live up to
his potential and shine in the playoffs.

Marion is the best player in this matchup and gives the Suns a slight edge up
front.

EDGE: SUNS

BACKCOURT: It’s all about Kobe. The Lakers’ success is on Bryant’s shoulders,
and the superstar guard knows if he can lead the Lakers on a run in the
playoffs it will show that he can win without Shaq. The 6-6 Bryant is on a
mission and will be even tougher to stop in the playoffs than he was in the
regular season.

Parker shocked the Lakers and the rest of the league with his solid season. He
proved that he can score and his athleticism was also an added bonus. George
and Sasha Vujacic will log minutes, but it will be tough to give Bryant a rest
this time of year.

The mere presence of Nash, who is a favorite to capture his second-straight
MVP award, makes the Suns backcourt dangerous. The Santa Clara product is
effective when he penetrates and dishes to his teammates for the open jump
shot.

Not only is Nash, who dealt with a right thigh contusion during the end of the
season, a great playmaker, the 6-3 All-Star can score and brings an impressive
playoff resume to the table. He has played in 66 postseason games and has
career-averages of 16.2 points and 7.6 assists.

Barbosa will play alongside Nash and will run the point when the All-Star
guard is getting a rest. Bell, Diaw and House will log a lot of minutes at
shooting guard. Not only is Diaw a factor up front, but he is equally as
important in the backcourt.

This is what Kobe has been waiting for and he won’t disappoint. Nash is
unbelievable and he makes everyone who plays with him better. Suns are deeper,
but Bryant makes this matchup equal.

EDGE: EVEN

COACH:

Mike D’Antoni, who is the 12th head coach Phoenix’ history, has done another
spectacular job in his second full season as the general of the Suns. His
philosophy of an up-tempo style is perfect for his squad and he has once again
coached to his team’s strength. D’Antoni knows the team follows Nash’s lead
and he has allowed his point guard to dictate the pace and style of the game.
Definitely a player’s coach, and it shows that his club loves to play for him.

Phil Jackson is in search of his 10th championship ring as a coach. He
led the Lakers to three titles in his first four years in LA, and guided the
Chicago Bulls to six championships. Jackson, who obviously knows what it takes
to win the postseason, is 44-0 all-time in postseason series when his
team has a lead in any point of the series.

EDGE: LAKERS

PREDICTION: Upset! Kobe has a lot to prove and will make his point against
Nash and the Suns.

LAKERS IN SIX

LAL PHO