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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Suns may be too classy to beat Lakers

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The stage and our hearts were there for the taking.

America wanted to fall for these Phoenix Suns. We still could. But after Los Angeles demolished the Suns in what felt like seven seconds or less in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center on Monday night, their time is short.

It wasn't just that the Suns were cast as the underdog to the Lakers in this series. Every team in the Western Conference is an underdog to the Lakers.

It's that the Suns of the past -- the run-and-gun teams that always seemed to have the worst luck in the playoffs -- had been bulldozed and recomposed into this new team propelled by a crew of outcasts and led by one of the game's most likable players.

We believed, coming into this series, that this version of the Suns was tougher and grittier despite the noticeable drop off in their Q-rating. They actually met a few defensive sets they liked. And maybe even a few elbows they wouldn't run from.

Suns Dejection
If the Suns don't find their tough side, they may find themselves ousted prematurely once again from the playoffs.
Like their coach, Alvin Gentry, these Suns had paid their dues and earned their place in these conference finals. Crawling out, with class, from the darkest corners of the NBA to form a team greater than its parts.

We believed all these things mostly because that's the team these Suns have been the second half of this season, but also because we wanted to.

But if Monday night's game was any indication, these Suns may not be that much different than the teams that flamed out about this time of year not so long ago.

The Suns began the day at their shootaround praising everything about the Lakers. Enjoying just how long their odds to win this series were.

"Obviously, you'd like to win Game 1 because it puts you in a good situation," Gentry said. "We'll go out and see what happens, but it's a huge task to beat these guys at home."

As motivational tactics go, this one's not hard to figure out. Lower expectations to keep your team loose, and if the other team happens to get a little complacent or too self-satisfied with its draw, that's cool too.

The Lakers, as we've all come to learn, have been known to ease off the gas pedal at inconvenient moments.

The thing is, these Lakers haven't lived down to expectations much during the playoffs, winning seven games in a row, including their last four closeout games.

To beat the Lakers at the moment, a team must be either brash (like the Oklahoma City Thunder) or crass (like the Boston Celtics?). The Suns, unfortunately, might just have too much class.

When Lakers fans started doing the wave with 8:53 to play in the game and the Lakers up 106-87, the Suns quietly watched from their bench during the timeout. Great sportsmanship, but that may not be such an abiding value at this moment, against this opponent.

"They beat us down a little bit," Suns center Channing Frye said. "In the past series, we've done a better job of establishing how we want to play, being aggressive and taking things away. Tonight we just didn't do that. But the Lakers are a great team. What do you expect?"

Afterward, Nash was even more blunt.

"You know," he said. "I think our room for error is small. They're a lot bigger than we are. They had a lot of points in the paint. They're probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on."

In other words, the odds are long.

Classy as everyone's comments were Monday night, giving credit to the Lakers for how well they played and tipping caps to Kobe Bryant for his efficiently brilliant offensive night, all that class made those odds feel longer, in a way.

Like, didn't the Suns seem a more interesting opponent when Nash jabbed back at Phil Jackson's comments (the Lakers' coach implied that Nash palms the ball) by calling Spurs coach Gregg Popovich the best coach in the league?

There were moments Monday night when you thought that the grit Phoenix had showed all season would re-emerge. Moments, not minutes.

A few seconds toward the end of the first half when Grant Hill jumped up off the ground after Kobe Bryant blew by him with an ankle-breaking crossover dribble-drive to the basket, raced down the court on the fast break, took a pass from Nash and pulled up for a 3-pointer.

Or midway through the fourth quarter when Jason Richardson jawed with the referees after he was called for a foul for standing in front of Shannon Brown as the Lakers guard attempted to use him as a stepladder for what would've been a monstrous Statue of Liberty dunk. Whether it was a foul or not was immaterial. Richardson had to respond to the affront and he did.

But there were far too many times Monday night when the Suns simply allowed the Lakers' size and talent advantages to overwhelm them.

Far too many times when they shook their heads and decided to tip their caps to Bryant's brilliance.

Far too many times when these Suns looked too much like the Suns of old.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.