Lakers take time to rest, prep for Suns
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Sweeping the Jazz earned the Lakers six days off before the start of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns.
They took Tuesday off totally, they'll also take Thursday off, and Wednesday's practice was described as "more mental preparation than anything" by Derek Fisher after the team went through a thorough film session followed by an intrasquad scrimmage (Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum sat out to rest their right knees, and Pau Gasol didn't play because he was sent home with sinusitis).
Bynum and the rest of the Lakers' big men are expected to be the focal point of attack against Phoenix. In three regular-season wins against the Suns, the Lakers won by an average of 15 points per game thanks in large part to a 54.0-41.3 points-in-the-paint edge.
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Bynum was particularly effective, averaging 15.7 points and 10 rebounds in the wins. That was before he missed the last 13 games of the regular season with a strained left Achilles tendon and suffered a small tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee in the playoffs.
The 7-footer shook off the injury in the first two games against Utah, averaging 12.5 points and 12 rebounds before falling off with averages of just 3.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in Games 3 and 4.
"I think I just need to be a little more active, which is tough with the knee, but I think I can get it done," Bynum said Wednesday. "I think I just have to take advantage of early opportunities, that's all I can really do. In the half-court set, they're going to be fronting, they're going to be doing things, we're going to be doing ball movement things as an offensive unit -- but if I get down the court before all that happens, I get myself into the game, I get myself going.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson agreed that Bynum could offer a huge advantage over Phoenix's front line of 6-foot-11 (and mostly stationary) Jarron Collins and 6-10 Amare Stoudemire, a notoriously disinterested defender.
"I think Drew has played through some of the discomfort and limitedness of his injury," Jackson said, "but I thought in Utah he couldn't quite get there to the point where he had to play with that explosion and that aggressiveness that he played the first two games with. We hope he gets it back again."
What Jackson and Bynum didn't agree on was how much motivation the Lakers will draw from the fact that the Suns knocked L.A. out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 2006 and '07.
"The reverse sweep is ridiculous," Bynum said about the '06 letdown. "We were up 3-1 and we lost three in a row, so everybody remembers that and it's definitely payback time."
Said Jackson: "It's just not even the same teams, and they don't have the same team ... I haven't thought about it in those terms at all."
Something Jackson has thought about is the Lakers bench and how it needs to improve to contend with the Suns' second unit. Phoenix's first five off the bench -- Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson -- are averaging 34 points and 15.7 rebounds combined during the playoffs. The Lakers' bench core averages 25.6 points and 14.1 rebounds.
Phoenix's bench has made such an impact so far that Kobe Bryant rattled each contributor off by name when questioned about the Suns' depth.
"It's something that we'll have to contend with," Bryant said. "Their guys coming off the bench are playing with so much confidence, they enjoy playing in this system. We all know about Barbosa and Dragic has really stepped up, he's making huge contributions, and Amundson coming in, both bringing energy and taking charges and things like that, and then Dudley -- they've really turned into a deep team."
Jackson said he is looking to find similar consistency from his bench brigade.
"We're still trying to get other guys to find themselves immersed in what we're trying to do so they can play their best game," Jackson said. "We want that to be habitual. Shannon [Brown] had a really good game in the fourth game of the Utah series. We want that to be like, 'He's going to be that every night. From now on, we can count on him every night. It's not just a hit-or-miss type of thing.' That goes for a lot of the guys: If the opportunity is there, fulfill it."
"I still say you can't compare the benches," Brown said. "Our bench is a little bit different than some other benches, but the second-unit play is going to be very, very important. They have a great unit coming off their bench and they play well together all the time. So we're going to have to be up to that challenge."
As much as the series will come down to the size advantage of the Lakers or the second-unit edge of the Suns, Jackson stressed that it really comes down to two teams playing their best basketball of the season.
The Suns have won six games in a row and eight of 10 overall in the postseason, just like the Lakers. But unlike L.A., Phoenix finished the season 22-5; Los Angeles was just 15-12 in that span.
The Lakers were 3-1 in the season series versus the Suns -- 9-3 in the past three seasons since the playoff loss in '07 -- but that success doesn't mean much against a team that has come this far already and knows it's just four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
"If we think they're going to come into this series and just kind of skip through it and just kind of give it the old college try, that's not going to happen," Fisher said. "These guys are going to come in and try to knock us out, and so we're going to have to be ready to go from the tip on Monday night and not leave anything up to chance."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.