A look at the position-by-position matchups in the Western Conference finals between the Suns and the Lakers:
Point Guard – Steve Nash vs. Derek Fisher
Nash and Fisher are two of the toughest and smartest guys in the league, veterans who always step up their play at this time of year. Obviously, Nash is the superior true point guard, and at this stage of the game, it would be surprising if Fisher put up much resistance. That said, Fisher will still try to frustrate Nash with gritty defense and maybe even a little flopping, but clearly, Fisher has lost a step (or two). Nash, meanwhile, is still as crafty as ever at the age of 36. Give an advantage to the Suns here. So much that you can expect the Lakers to occasionally Ron Artest or even Kobe Bryant on Nash from time to time.
Shooting Guard – Jason Richardson vs. Kobe Bryant
Bryant could still make a strong case as the league’s greatest player, and there is no proven way to keep him from scoring. So Richardson must keep him busy at the other end, by not only working to get open, but burying shots once he does. Richardson proved he’s capable of doing exactly that in the first two playoff series, averaging 21.9 points per game on a sizzling 51 percent from the floor — including 51 percent on 3-pointers. Along with his offensive talents, Bryant, of course, is a top-notch defender. That, again, may mean the Lakers will use him on Nash. If so, it would free up Richardson for some shots over smaller guards. Basically, he needs to stay on course and keep knocking ’em down.
Small Forward – Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest
Artest is a world-class defender and that’s OK by the Suns. Hill is no longer a high-volume shooter and doesn’t need a lot of touches to be effective. These days, Hill specializes in the intricacies of the game, things that go unnoticed in the box score. That includes leadership, chemistry and ball movement. Those are hard to defend, because much of it doesn’t require possession of the ball. And when Hill does have it, he’s OK with giving it up quickly and keeping the offense moving. Knowing that, Artest will likely wander off him, and help defend Nash and Richardson — which could mean a big series for Hill. On defense, Hill is may spend time defending Bryant, while Richardson matches up with Artest.
Power Forward – Amare Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol
Unlike the Lakers’ previous series against Utah and Carlos Boozer, Gasol won’t have a considerable length advantage against Stoudemire. In fact, Gasol hasn’t faced a forward who’s anywhere close in ability to Stoudemire in the playoffs. Stoudemire has clearly improved his range, consistently burying jumpers from 18 or even 22 feet. As an added bonus, he’s still just as lethal underneath the basket and finishing on breaks. That’s not to say Stoudemire will dominate Gasol (who will make Stoudemire work just as hard at the other end), but it could force the Lakers to do more double-teaming of the low-post than they would like. And in the Suns’ offense, that could lead to even more open shots. As an aside, Lakers center Andrew Bynum has had a lingering injury, which may move Gasol to center and match up Stoudemire with Lamar Odom.
Center – Andrew Bynum vs. Jarron Collins
This position is truly a wildcard, especially for the Suns, but also with the Lakers and the injured Bynum. Surely, when everyone is healthy, the Lakers would have an edge here if it came down to Bynum vs. Collins. But that will hardly be the case. Instead, Bynum may not start, Gasol may move to center, and Collins is likely to only play around the 11 minutes a game he has averaged in the playoffs. Expect the Suns mostly to counter with Channing Frye, or even the quickly healing Robin Lopez (back) — who reportedly might start in Game 1. That’s great news, considering Lopez will help the Suns greatly under the boards against one of the league’s best rebounding teams.
Bench – Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Louis Amundson vs. Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmer Sasha Vujacic, D.J. Mbenga.
This is where things will really get interesting because, as written on NBA.com, the Suns don’t just have a bench, they have an entire second team in the truest sense. Dudley and Barbosa will spend some time trying to irritate Bryant, Dragic has been occasionally phenomenal and Frye is the equivalent of a 6-foot-11 shooting guard. The Suns’ unconventional reserves have created all kinds of strife for opponents, particularly in the playoffs. Bottom line: If the bench continues its stellar play, there’s no reason the Suns can’t keep this dream of a season alive.
Sam Amico is a reporter for NBA.com and a regular contributor to Suns.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.