PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Game 1
Nash and the Suns begin their quest in the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers at the US Airways Center.
The NBA’s reigning MVP and likely a finalist again for the award this season, Nash averaged 18.9 points, a league-high 10.5 assists and shot a career-high 51.2 percent fom the field for the Suns, who won their second consecutive Pacific Division title and are in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons ofr the first time since 2000 and 2001.
“I’m ready to roll now,” said Nash. “I’m excited. We have to go out there and be ourselves in the playoffs. We have to just keep doing what we do and be confident.”
Phoenix lost in the Western Conference finals to eventual champion San Antonio and is the second seed despite a revamped offense that did not have Amare Stoudamire for almost the entire season and new role players making significant contributions.
Last year’s club tied a franchise record with 62 wins and benefitted from having a healthy Stoudemire, who averaged 26.0 points and 8.9 rebounds in 2004-05. But the power forward played just three games as he recovered from knee surgery.
His absence—along with the offseason trades of Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson—allowed Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Eddie House and Leandro Barbosa to have greater impact on a revamped offense that averaged 108.4 points, just 2.0 points below last season’s mark.
“The guys stepped up over the 82 (games),” said Shawn Marion, the Suns’ leading scorer (21.8) and rebounder (11.8) this season. “We finished 54-28 but we could have matched last year’s record and probably beat it. Now we have to get focused for the playoffs.”
The Suns went just 12-11 over their final 23 games, but closed their season with a 106-96 win Wednesday over Portland for their fourth win in the last six games.
Marion had 32 points and 11 rebounds for his 60th double-double this season and Nash added 16 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his third career triple-double.
Phoenix broke its own NBA record by making 837 3-pointers this season, up from 796 last season.
The stellar individual play of Kobe Bryant and return of coach Phil Jackson helped the Lakers avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Bryant won his first NBA scoring title by averaging 35.4 points and was the first player since Michael Jordan in the 1987-88 season to average 35.0 points.
Bryant, also a finalist for the NBA Most Valuable Player award, had 21 40-point games, four 50-point games, a 62-point effort and his 81-point performance Jan. 22 in a win over Toronto was the second-highest single-game total in NBA history.
“It was a good season for me individually,” said Bryant, who averaged 42.5 points this season against the Suns and scored 88 points in two games at Phoenix. “I am more proud of what we were able to accomplish as a team, getting into the postseason. It always feels good to be acknowledged, but the most important thing is getting into the postseason.”
Jackson, who left the Lakers following the 2003-04 season, had a better relationship with Bryant this season and will try to extend his streak of never losing a first-round playoff series.
“It’s not going to be about Kobe getting 45 points a night,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be about how are we going to use all the talents to do what we have to do to take a team apart.”
Los Angeles closed the season with a season-high five-game winning streak as Lamar Odom averaged 14.8 points and 11.6 rebounds and posted two triple-doubles in that charge. Point guard Smush Parker contributed 11.8 points per game, and Bryant secured the seventh seed for the Lakers with a 35-point effort in the season-ending win over the New Orleans Hornets.
The Lakers have won six of eight playoff series against the Suns, including one in the 2000 Western Conference semifinals in the most recent postseason meeting.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lakers - 7th seed. Suns - 2nd seed.
REGULAR SEASON TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 35.4 ppg; Odom, 9.2 rpg and 5.5 apg. Suns - Marion, 21.8 ppg and 11.8 rpg; Nash, 10.5 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Suns, 3-1. Phoenix won the first three meetings by an average of 11.4 points before Los Angeles clinched a playoff berth with a 109-89 win April 16 to wrap up the season series.