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With Suns' bench warming to the task, Lakers face a big challenge

One area in which Phoenix appears to have an edge heading into the Western Conference finals is in the play of its reserves, who have averaged nearly 35 points a game in the playoffs. The Suns go 10 deep, and their non-starters are particularly dangerous from three-point range.

May 15, 2010|By Lisa Dillman

Pau Gasol was getting hit from all linguistic directions, questions about Arizona's new immigration law, and proved just as adept at navigating through a hot-button issue as he does handling traffic in the paint.

Still, the Barcelona-born Gasol looked a bit relieved when the discussion steered away from Los Suns and Los Lakers, as someone supplied a semi-deadpan basketball out.

"So how about that Suns' bench?"

The conversational lifeline may take on a different tone once the Western Conference finals eventually unfold, because the Suns' bench, most assuredly, is not the short-handed, almost depleted group employed by the Utah Jazz. Gasol called the Suns' reserves "really productive."

Phoenix goes 10 deep with the bench featuring small forward Jared Dudley, big man Channing Frye, guards Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa and forward Louis Amundson.

"Well, their bench plays a different role as per-minute basis than my group does," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "So we see our starters having to play guys that are multiple-player guys in their roles.

"Dudley comes in for Grant Hill early and Frye comes in for their centers early — so it's not simply about bench for bench, man on man. It's about adjusting to the different players that come in and play those positions.

"It's not quite favorable to just compare bench and bench productivity in this situation. I think our bench will do fine."

The Lakers have come miles from the opening round against Oklahoma City, in which Thunder reserve James Harden outscored the Lakers' bench by himself, 18 points to 14, in Oklahoma City's Game 3 win.

Or Game 1 against the Jazz, when the Lakers bench faltered in the fourth quarter and forced Jackson to rush three starters back into the game, and sixth man Lamar Odom called out his bench colleagues afterward.

In Lakers time, that seems like, oh, months ago.

Odom spoke about the latest challenge facing him and fellow reserves Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, Shannon Brown, Josh Powell and the previously injured Sasha Vujacic.

"They've done a great job, especially in the second half of the season," Odom said of the Suns. "Getting production from everyone.

"We expect the same. They're one of the deepest teams in the league. And they really shoot the three-pointer well. They get a lot from it. If we can limit their second-chance opportunities, stop their penetration. That allows them to get all their threes off."

The Lakers are expected to get Vujacic back during this series. He has been practicing after having missed the opening two rounds because of a badly sprained left ankle.

Vujacic said the importance of the Suns' bench couldn't be underestimated.

"I wouldn't say it's an X factor, but it's a factor for them," he said. "They're playing good all year long, they have confidence, they play together and sometimes little things, making the extra pass, makes you from an OK team to a good team."

And what information, if any, can be gleaned from the regular season, in which the Lakers won three of four against the Suns, with three of the games being played before Jan. 1?

"You can't read anything into that," Odom said. "Every team is a lot better than they were in the regular season."

There is no better singular example than of Dragic. The Slovenian hit double figures (14 points) once in the four games against the Lakers this season. But he was a revelation in Game 3 of the Suns' sweep of San Antonio in the conference semifinals, scoring 26 points, including 23 in the third quarter alone, and shooting five for five from three-point range.

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