It was going to be different this time — the Suns are playing defense. The Suns swept the Spurs out of the playoffs and San Antonio’s coaches and players were to a man saying this Phoenix team was different.
Not against the Lakers.
Kobe got the shots he wanted and hit everything on his way to 40 points. Lamar Odom was a complete sparkplug with 19 points and 19 rebounds off the bench. The Lakers drove into the heart of the Suns defense, got 56 points in the paint and thrashed the Suns 128-107 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers exposed the Suns defense, but not quite how everyone expected. The Lakers wanted to get the ball into big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the paint, but they had to adjust some.
"They were denying, they were denying everywhere," Shannon Brown said of how the Suns tried to cut off post entry passes from the Lakers. "(Middle drives) is what they were giving us, so we had to take advantage of what they was giving us. There were denying a lot of our entry passes which left the middle wide open for us."
And the Lakers drove right down the middle to the win.
In the first half, it was a lot of Odom — and when he is on the Lakers are a much, much tougher team. He was on.
Odom has 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting in the first half alone. He finished the night with 19 points, 19 rebounds and has played good pick-and-roll defense as the Lakers took a seven point lead at the half.
The third quarter was the Kobe show — he had 21 points in the quarter alone. He finished with 40 on 13 of 23 shooting, plus he got to the line a dozen times. Kobe was aggressive. After a week off to rest his knee — including having fluid drained out of it at one point — he looked refreshed. He said having his knee drained wasn’t a big deal.
“I just lost weight,” Bryant joked.
The Lakers offense was dominant, but the defense was also solid against a very good Suns team. After a rough first six minutes — Phoenix was up by seven early — the Lakers played the Suns well, taking away passing lanes and contesting jumpers. The Suns were still getting points because they are a good offensive team, but they shot just 49.4 percent overall and more importantly just 22 percent from three (where they have been shooting over 40 percent all playoffs). That is not likely to continue next game — in part the Suns were just missing shots they have been making for weeks.
But even if those shots start falling, the Lakers offense can carry them if it continues to click like this. The Lakers have a lot of mismatches to exploit -- Gasol in the paint (he had 21 points), Grant Hill is not a match for Kobe and the Suns have nobody who can check Lamar Odom.
Game 1 showed this series is going to be entertaining. It will be fun for fans — although not the best defensive practice for the NBA Finals. But that’s a problem the Lakers can deal with when they get there. And right now it looks like they will. Maybe easily.