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Can The Lakers Set The Suns?

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In the last 23 years, NBA playoff seven seeds have won four and lost 42 series of their first-round playoff series.

Not good news for the seventh-seeded Lakers, who tip off against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday (noon on ABC). Still there is some hope -- last year in the playoffs against these Suns the Lakers took a 3-1 series lead (but eventually lost in seven games); and even during the recent Lakers slide some of their few good efforts have been against Phoenix.

Most pundits don’t think it will be all that close -- the Suns and their run-and-gun style are heavy favorites -- but the Lakers can make this a thrilling series. All they need to do something they haven’t done much of lately -- play good defense. Against the Suns that means being very disciplined (something else that has not been a Laker strength of late).

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We say discipline is key because to defend the Suns means ignoring your basketball instincts. For example, players in the flow of the game want to run, like to play fast, love to push the tempo -- do that against the Suns and you play right into their strength. Another example — when Steve Nash drives into the lane, the instinct is for two or three defenders to collapse and try to help stop him -- do that and you pay with a crisp pass and a three point shot. Against the Suns the Lakers must slow the tempo, and they must stay home defensively.

The Suns like to score two ways -- on dunks and on three-point shots. If you look at the Suns team shot chart (people do track this stuff) you see they're pretty good shooters from anywhere, but they are amazing from three point range and right at the hoop. As a team they shoot 67% at the basket and 40% from three-point range. What the Lakers need to do is take those two things away.

That means containing Suns star Steve Nash, but doing so also takes ignoring your instincts -- you want the two-time league MVP to shoot. It's trouble, because he's a good shooter. But he's less dangerous as a shooter than as a passer, setting up great teammates for a dunk, or the wide-open three.

That's the problem with defending the Suns; there are no good choices, just less bad ones.

On offense, the Lakers need to slow the game down (back to that don't start running rule) and pound the ball inside to Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom. If the Lakers are playing well Kobe will not score 50, but rather Odom will have 30 and get 25 of them from within six feet of the basket. And Kobe will get the assists.

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Do all this, plus defend the pick-and-roll well, and the Lakers have a chance. All it takes is discipline and some clutch shots from Kobe.

Easier said than done.

AP photo by Matt York