Western Conference Finals Recap - Game 1
(1) L.A. Lakers 128, (3) Phoenix 107 - Lakers lead series, 1-0
Remember the Orlando-Atlanta second-round series in this year's NBA postseason? The one that felt like it was over after just one game had been played? The 2010 Western Conference Finals feel very similar after just 48 minutes.
Heading into the start of this star-studded series, there was just a pinch of intrigue concerning the proceedings. Kobe Bryant, the best player in professional basketball, had his knee drained and was resting to nurse a number of nicks and bruises. Teammate Andrew Bynum acknowledged that his own balky knee had become worse since the end of the Lakers' second-round series win against the Utah Jazz. Maybe, just maybe, the Lakers weren't healthy enough to crush the Suns. Perhaps health issues - which also included the return of big man Robin Lopez to the Phoenix lineup - would give the underdogs from Arizona a real chance to be competitive.
The Suns franchise is 1-6 in non-first-round playoff series against the Lakers over the past four decades, so Phoenix needed all the help it could get. In some quarters, that help had arrived in the form of Kobe's and Bynum's knee problems.
From a Phoenix perspective, then, the message of Game 1 is that you evidently can't get good help these days.
Even on a night when Bynum's health did indeed limit his quality of play (4 points in just 19 minutes), the Lakers - as a team - were entirely unaffected by the injury bug. That's because Kobe drained not his knee, but a ream of jump shots. In one game, all the hopes harbored by the Suns evaporated, thanks primarily to a Kobe conquest which left an impotent underdog reeling.
For all he's endured over the past three seasons of basketball - playing into the middle of June and, in 2008, shouldering a full plate of Olympic basketball duties - Kobe's body has certainly been exposed to a lot of wear and tear. Earlier in his career, a number of personal controversies engulfed his life, but now, the foremost challenge facing No. 24 is the need to manage his physical well-being. No man on earth has played the amount of hoops that Kobe has since 2008 while having to shoulder such high expectations and on-court responsibilities. Fans and pundits no longer question Kobe's mental toughness (they do still question his decisions, albeit unfairly), but the physical strain of the past 36 months is something that this superstar - now in his early 30s - has to be mindful of. This is precisely why Kobe rested during the week off between playoff series. Lamar Odom and other Laker teammates weren't worried about his absence from daily practices; they said they just needed his body to be right at game time.
Oh, how right Odom and friends proved to be.
Kobe shredded a tissue-soft Phoenix defense Monday night at Staples Center. He hit 13 of 23 shots en route to 40 points in little over three quarters. He was able to sit down with nine minutes left in regulation and not re-enter the contest. That's how good he was, and that's how dominant the Lakers proved to be in a game that felt like a regular-season clash more than a late-stage playoff showdown.
If last year's run to the NBA title was marked with difficult matchups for the Lakers, things have broken right this time around. The toughest matchup for coach Phil Jackson's club was a young Oklahoma City team that will be really scary in future seasons, but which lacked the experience needed to gain the upper hand in 2010. In the second round, L.A. could have drawn a long and nasty Denver team, but instead got the smaller and injury-plagued Jazz, a perfect development for the Lake Show.
In these West Finals, San Antonio would have posed a few problems for the Lakers, since L.A. doesn't play Phoenix's up-tempo small-ball style and would not have exposed the Spurs' lack of quickness. San Antonio could have banged with the Lakers in the low post and used its veteran presence to war with the Lake Show on even terms. The Suns, however, represent a great draw for the defending world champions: They're not long, and they don't have a healthy top-flight center (Lopez played, but he moved poorly and was extremely rusty). Moreover, they don't play great defense.
Game 1 exposed all those issues for Phoenix against L.A.'s length and power. The Lakers hit 58 percent of their shots, scored at least 31 points in three of four quarters, and saw their big men dominate, as expected. Odom snapped down 19 boards for the victors, while teammate Pau Gasol hit 10 of 13 shots from the field. The game was just way too easy for the Lakers, and it's hard to see how Phoenix will ever be able to counter what Los Angeles offers.
And oh, did we mention that Phil Jackson-coached teams are 46-0 when they win the first game of a playoff series?
When do the NBA Finals begin, anyway? (Answer: Thursday, June 3 at 9:15 p.m. Eastern.)
By: Matt Zemek
Pro Basketball Fans Guest Writer
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