NBA: Lakers' title defense runs into Nash's Suns
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has barely touched a basketball in a week, giving his gimpy ankle and arthritic finger time to heal. That purplish, jagged gouge over Steve Nash's right eye also should be one week less ghastly by tipoff time in the Western Conference finals.
Although both stars play a beautiful game, Bryant and Nash realize postseason basketball is rarely pretty, and they wouldn't expect to escape the postseason without a few ugly souvenirs of the playoff grind.
After both teams got a week off to rest and recalibrate, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers will attempt to reach their third straight NBA finals when they take on the Phoenix Suns, starting in Game 1 on Monday night.
"It's all part of the game, every part of it," Bryant said. "I love a long layoff. Everybody on our team is pretty much banged up, so it's good to get rest and get ready for what's in front of you."
Bryant has been cagey about his interest in revenge on the Suns for ending the Lakers' season in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs, alternately embracing and downplaying it. Three years can be an eternity in the here-today, gone-later-today world of pro sports, but Bryant, Lamar Odom and a few other Lakers from those teams have mentioned a passing interest in payback.
"I don't forget much," Odom said.
There's no doubt about Phoenix's motivation: Late in what's starting to resemble a charmed season, Nash is hoping the Suns will get him to the NBA finals for the first time. His 112 career postseason games are the most in NBA history without the chance to play for a title.
The 36-year-old Canadian's eye injury makes him look more like a hockey goon than a point guard, yet Phoenix finally has the talent and opportunity to reach the finals — if the Suns can just find a way past Bryant, Pau Gasol and the favored, playoff-tested Lakers.
"I've tried to enjoy it," Nash said before boarding a bus Sunday for the Suns' trip to Los Angeles. "Now that it's here, I'm trying to enjoy every moment that's in the playoffs."
Bryant and Nash have more in common than trophy cases full of MVP awards and All-Star honors. They share a creative approach to basketball influenced by the geometry of soccer and European hoops, constantly lending moments of beauty to the brutal course of an 82-game NBA season and a two-month playoff campaign — and leading to a mostly unspoken kinship.
"He's a great passer, a great penetrator, great shooter," Bryant said. "They surrounded him with guys that complement him and feed off him, and they're a great offensive team."
Yet as the stars' battered bodies attest, sometimes playoff success is due simply to outworking, outmuscling and outlasting opponents. Los Angeles has held teams to 41 percent shooting in the postseason, while smallish Phoenix has outrebounded its playoff foes while outscoring them by nearly 10 points per game.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson already teased Nash for carrying the ball, but carrying momentum is much tougher following a full week off. Although the Lakers and Phoenix both swept their second-round opponents and won six straight playoff games overall, neither expects to ride last week's wave into Staples Center.
"With this break, we're back to Square One now," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. "To empty that jar out and then fill it back up is not easy, but we have to be prepared to do that."
Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire realizes Los Angeles is favored because of length and strength: the superior size of the Lakers' frontcourt with 7-footers Gasol and Andrew Bynum, along with Bryant's ferocious competitive edge. Yet the Suns routed San Antonio in four straight second-round games, negating Tim Duncan's size advantage and suggesting they're a title contender after missing the playoffs last spring.
"That's fine," Stoudemire said of the Lakers' favored status. "It's been like that all season. We've been able to accomplish things that were unreachable, for the most part."
Jackson has expressed admiration for the way Nash and his teammates have maximized coach Alvin Gentry's offense, which modifies the Suns' former run-and-gun formula into something more versatile.
"We have to be who we are," Gentry said. "We're not going to play any differently than we've played all season. We have to be able to create lanes and avenues for Steve to drive. We've got to be able to penetrate and pitch when they help with their bigs. We've got to be able to run screen-and-roll as we always do, pick and pop. When we do that, we have success."
Yet when the Lakers are healthy and focused, no West teams have been able to knock them off their game for three years — and the Suns lost three of four to Los Angeles in the regular season.
"I'm not at all amazed or astounded at what they've done," Jackson said of the Suns. "We knew from the very first time we played them that they were going to be a team ... to deal with at some point in the playoffs. They made some growth during the year, and they're playing some better basketball, which is what you expect."
Bryant and Bynum didn't speak to reporters Sunday after skipping most of the Lakers' final practice, but both will play. Although Bynum said Saturday his injured right knee gradually is getting worse, Jackson thinks Bynum likely could play 30 minutes or more if his time is split into manageable segments.
Suns big man Robin Lopez is expected to make his playoff debut in his first game since late March after sitting out the first two playoff rounds with a bulging disc. Lopez should give Phoenix better inside defense, yet the Suns still realize they'll be undermanned underneath the hoop.
"We certainly don't want to play into their hands and for it to be a slow methodical game where their size can be a factor," Nash said. "We want to be able to push the ball down the court and create openings and opportunities with our quickness and ball movement."