Lakers Finish Jazz, Look Ahead to Suns
They're cruising in a whole different way now.
More like rolling, really.
They finished Utah off like a pint of Polygamy Porter on Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena, their 111-96 victory in Game 4 marking their sixth straight win and completing what was the first ever four-game sweep of the Jazz in franchise history (New Orleans and Utah) and the second of any kind.
The Lakers led by as many as 22 points in the first half, showcasing the sort of urgency and focus that will be needed if their title defense is to remain on track. The next obstacle in their path, of course, is a Phoenix Suns team that they know all too well.
Before the Suns' renaissance under coach Alvin Gentry, the Mike D'Antoni version ousted the Lakers in the first round in 2006 (seven games) and 2007 (five games). While the respective rosters have certainly changed, the core players remain the same -- Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom on one side, Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire on the other.
"We're looking forward to playing there," said Odom, one of five Lakers to remain from the '06 version and one of six to remain from '07. "It's nice and warm. It's an hour flight. They've beaten us in the playoffs before. We're looking forward to getting it on."
Asked if there would be a revenge factor in play here, Odom pulled the curtain back on this team's mentality at the moment.
"We've still got guys who remember it," he said. "Ask Kobe about it."
Bryant never spoke of revenge when asked, nor did he have to.
"What [do] you think?" he answered with an icy stare. "You already know."
Everybody knows the backstory, too. There was colossal fallout after the last playoff loss to the Suns, with Bryant spending much of the following summer demanding a trade via the media as he faced a career crossroads. While the soap opera that surrounded him is no more, the Suns once again stand in the way of Bryant's insatiable desire to build on his legacy.
Yet in truth, this series will have more to do with the frontcourt matchups and pace than it will the star power on the wings. Since the Lakers returned to relevance with their 2008 trade for Pau Gasol, they're 7-2 against the Suns. Gasol, center Andrew Bynum and Odom present problems to all comers.
The Suns, however, are eagerly anticipating the return of Robin Lopez to their lineup after a back injury caused him to miss the final 10 games of the regular season and the first two rounds of the postseason. Phoenix was 22-9 with Lopez as a starter this season and just 32-19 when he didn't start. Jarron Collins has filled in admirably, but the Suns will need all the bigs they can find to survive down low.
"I think [Lopez's] presence will help them out," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "They need a big body. That's where we've had some success with them these last couple years, but we'll have to see how Robin comes through this."
Bynum said the Lakers' first-round showdown against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder should help them.
"I think with [the Suns] it'll be like playing the Thunder again," said Bynum, who averaged just 7.8 points and 8.8 rebounds against the Jazz and took a combined seven shots in the last two games. "They try to run the ball down your throat.
"Everything with us is going to be transition defense. If we fail to get back on transition defense, then we'll have a problem. If not, then we'll be all right."
Jackson said the Nash-Stoudemire combination will be his focal point.
"Their two-man combo screen roll situations are phenomenal," he said. "We think we have a good combination with Pau and Kobe, and we're going to try and match that."
And Bryant, of course, will be trying as hard as anyone.
"We're very familiar with them," Bryant said. "The difference in how [the Suns] played in the regular season and how they played now is just confidence. They believe in what they're doing. ...They want it. They're very, very hungry."
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