Suns Take on Lakers Again

The Suns and Lakers go at it again beginning Sunday, and championship-hungry Phoenix wants no repeat of last season's first-round drama.

``We won Game 1 last year and were feeling good about ourselves,'' Steve Nash said, ``and the next thing you know, we're down 3-1. Hopefully we won't be in that position. That should be good lesson for us.''

Oddsmakers have made Phoenix -10.5 point spread favorites (NBA Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at 211 total points (View NBA Sports Books). Our public betting information shows that 51% of bets for this game have been placed on Los Angeles +10.5 (View NBA Bet Percentages).

The Suns came back, needing an overtime victory in Los Angeles in Game 6, followed by a rout of the Lakers in Game 7, to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. After another seven-game series with the Clippers, Phoenix fell to Dallas in six games in the conference finals.

This is a different team, with Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas back and healthy, and the Suns stressed all season that anything short of a championship would be a disappointment, a feeling emphasized by all the ``Eyes on the Prize'' billboards around town.

The regular season was just a warmup.

``As an organization, this is the only thing that really matters,'' Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said. ``Now when you win a game, you get to chalk it off. We beat Dallas in double overtime, it was one of 82 games. It really didn't mean anything. Now the games are starting to mean something. I mean, it's automatic our guys are ready to go.''

A bit of locker room billboard material has cropped up in Los Angeles.

First, there's Stoudemire's matter-of-fact statements that this series won't go seven, a comment he amended Saturday by saying it might go six.

``I'm just thinking of what's best for us as a team,'' he said. ``If we take care of them earlier than seven, we'd have time to rest for the second round.''

D'Antoni said it was just Stoudemire being himself.

``I'm glad he thinks that,'' the coach said. ``It's not going to be easy. Everybody knows that. We have to play really well, but he's got kind of a swagger to him. He's always had that. You can't take that away from him. But does it mean anything? Not really.''

Then there are those excerpts from the book ``:07 Seconds or Less,'' written by Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum after he had inside access to the Suns all of last season. The excerpts showed that behind closed doors, the Phoenix coaches had some highly uncomplimentary things to say about the Lakers during the playoff series.

A sampling published by the Los Angeles Times quoted D'Antoni as saying, ``Kwame (Brown) is awful. (Lamar) Odom is a very average defender. (Sasha) Vujacic can't guard and Kobe Bryant in the open floor takes chances that aren't good.''

D'Antoni called the whole issue ``a nonstory.''

``You're down 3-1, you're not going to come out and say `These guys are great and we can't beat them,''' he said. ``You try to run them down so we mentally get an edge with our guys. It's no disrespect to them.''

Lakers coach Phil Jackson doesn't blame the Suns for being confident.

``They have three seasons with close to 60 victories now,'' he said. ``They still haven't gotten to that final step, to get to the finals of the West and the finals of the playoffs. But they're a confident team, and it shows. You've got to give them some respect for that. After we get into the series, all that rhetoric, we'll see how well that holds up.''

Rookie Jordan Farmar, expected to start at point guard in place of Smush Parker, said the comments ``should get under your skin a little bit and bring out that competitive nature, that dog in everybody.''

The two biggest names in the series - Bryant and Nash - shrugged off all the pregame talk.

``I'm not surprised by anything like that,'' Bryant said. ``I don't have any sentiment one way or another.''

Nash said he was ``oblivious to it.''

Of more concern to the players is the strategy and strengths each team will display.

The Suns, of course, want to run, run and run some more. The Lakers want to slow it down. Bryant is the league's scoring champion, but Phoenix expects Los Angeles to pound the ball inside, where the Lakers have a size advantage.

After their brutal confrontations - physically and verbally - a year ago, Bryant and the Suns' Raja Bell made peace during the regular season. Whether that holds up remains to be seen.

``Right now, we have respect for the Suns' defense,'' Jackson said. ``They're a better defensive team than people think they are. Everybody points to their offense, but we think defensively we have to find some weaknesses. Some of those are what we have to expose.''

With Nash, expect the Lakers to try to limit his options defensively and make him be a scorer rather than a facilitator. Of course, that's a gamble with the league's two-time defending MVP.

While leading the league with a career-high 11.6 assists per game, Nash also averaged 18.6 points and shot a career-best 53 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range.

``If they want me to shoot,'' Nash said, ``I'll be happy to oblige, especially in the playoffs.''

By: Marc Young - - Email Us

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