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Saturday, May 22, 2010
Five big questions for Lakers vs. Suns, Game 3

By Brian Kamenetzky

Look, folks, just because the basketball world (or at least the purple, gold, and green parts of it) has turned giddy in anticipation of an L.A. vs. Boston Finals- and Saturday night's pasting handed to the Magic gets us one step closer- doesn't mean the work at hand can be totally ignored.

Phoenix remains a dangerous team, particularly at home. So sure, go ahead and guesstimate how many chickens you'll have once they've hatched, but don't work a firm count quite yet. Game 3 matters. Here are five big questions surrounding the Sunday afternoon's tilt:

1. So, seriously, does Amare Stoudemire have any pride ?

We'll find out. No player I can think of has been so widely eviscerated for his play on the defensive side of the ball as Stoudemire has been since Game 1. People are piling on to the point that the piles have piles, and deservedly so. Praised down the stretch for, belated as it may be, attention and improvement to that part of his game, Amare has been a massive impediment to his team's fortunes in the first two games, failing in the pick-and-roll, in the post, as a help defender, and on the boards. The Suns cannot win unless he improves.

At the very least, I'd be shocked if Stoudemire doesn't come with more effort in Game 3. He won't be Dwight Howard, but he can't possibly again be Curly Howard, can he?

2. Let's assume Amare steps up a little. Is that enough for the Suns to slow down the Lakers?

Not as such. Phoenix's problems run deeper. We learned in Game 1 the Suns can't handle Kobe Bryant in single coverage. We learned in Game 2 they're not built to throw extra bodies at him or Pau Gasol for that matter either. They don't rotate and recover particularly well, and given how adeptly the Lakers move the ball -- everyone in the starting lineup save Andrew Bynum is an above-average-to-elite-level passer -- double teams become very problematic. For the Lakers to shoot above 57 percent in both Games 1 and 2, scoring 128 and 124 points respectively, despite Alvin Gentry altering his defensive approach from one game to the next is telling. The Lakers are getting too many clean looks (from Phoenix's perspective), whether in the lane or along the arc.

3. So there's no hope at all for the Suns? Why'd you bring me here? I could be prepping for the Lost finale.

Well, certain things should give Phoenix hope and motivate you to use the DVR. First, Kobe has done most of his damage on the perimeter. Only five of his 41 field goal attempts have been layups or dunks. So while Kobe has been very effective in the first two games, he's not living in the paint. Meanwhile, luck hasn't exactly been the primary impetus behind the performances of Lamar Odom and Gasol, but the Lakers have benefited from certain numbers easily considered, well, abnormal. Kudos to Jordan Farmar for raising his game, but raise your hand if you think he's is going to continue shooting 73 percent for the rest of the series.

Conversely, even if he continues to play poorly, Channing Frye seems likely to exceed his current series averages of 1.5 points and 1.0 rebounds. (For the record, he's a 47 percent three-point shooter at home, 40 percent on the road.)

Phoenix is a much more potent team at home. During the regular season, the Suns scored 5.3 more points per game at U.S. Airways Arena than away from it, and their average point differential jumped from 3.4 to 8.5. The Lakers, by comparison, were a much less productive road team, their point differential dropping from 9.4 at Staples to 1.2 as a visiting team. That's gotta count for something, right?

4. So it's not over?

Technically, no, statistically yes. Teams going up 2-0 in a best of seven win about 95 percent of the time. Phil Jackson has never lost a series after his squad gains such an advantage. Nothing about the Suns, and more importantly the matchup, indicates Phoenix will be the team to beat the odds, but if the Lakers screw around they could find themselves playing extra games while Boston rests. And as Kobe pointed out earlier in the postseason, goofy things can happen on the floor. Ankles get twisted, knees tweaked. The only way a player is guaranteed not to get hurt in a game is make sure the game doesn't get played.

Judging by their collective attitude at practice this week, the Lakers are very aware of the challenge the Suns still present, and while it's impossible to shove the Finals completely out of mind the focus is very much where it should be. That doesn't mean they'll win Game 3 -- Phoenix is playing for its season, after all --  but if they lose it won't be due to dismissiveness.

5. So what do the Lakers need to do to keep a potential sweep intact?

They've done a good job through two games not getting sucked into Phoenix's pace. On the Suns' floor, though, that's a taller order. I'm particularly curious about how the Lakers will respond if the Suns are hot early, and bust out to a quick lead. Will they lose offensive discipline and settle faster for jumpers? I have a hunch we'll find out. The Lakers will also have to continue doing good work against Phoenix's second unit. Not necessarily offensively, but at the other end. Guys like Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, and Frye can pile up points in bunches. Phoenix has had some success getting their reserve guards into the paint. Defensive discipline in the second unit will be key. Having just enjoyed three more days of rest, don't be surprised if Jackson mixes in another starter with what would normally be a more backup-heavy group in an effort to add stability.

As much as Lakers fans would like to keep pace with the Celtics, I have a feeling the series comes back to L.A. Thursday night. I'd be surprised if it didn't. At the same time, the Lakers have won three straight on the road in the playoffs, and have closed out four straight series away from home dating back to last year's Denver series. If they can weather what is sure to be a strong early push from the Suns, the Lakers can absolutely win Game 3.

The Suns are a team on the ropes. After Game 1, Steve Nash acknowledged their margin for error was small. After Game 2, Gentry was asking for suggestions. Stoudemire's pride is wounded. I question whether they truly believe they can beat L.A.

Having won eight straight, the Lakers will face a stiff challenge to win a ninth. If they can get it done, it'll be among the most impressive in the string.