SALT LAKE CITY – It doesn’t matter to Kobe Bryant(notes) that three years have passed and he’s won a championship since then. He has a long memory. And just the mere mention of the Phoenix Suns brings a spark to his eyes.
The Los Angeles Lakers advanced to their third straight Western Conference finals by sweeping the Utah Jazz with a 111-96 victory on Monday night. Next up are the Phoenix Suns, whom the Lakers have beaten seven times in nine games since acquiring Pau Gasol(notes). But that doesn’t matter to Bryant. When asked if he recalled that the Suns knocked the Lakers out of the postseason during their last two meetings in 2006 and ’07, Bryant’s eyes filled with disdain.
“What do you think? You already know,” Bryant said, staring through his questioner.
The Lakers and Suns open the West finals on Monday in Los Angeles. Los Angeles won the season series 3-1 with an average margin of victory of 15 points. The Suns have won six straight games in the playoffs, including a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs, but the Lakers are considered strong favorites in the series.
The Suns, however, knocked off Bryant and the Lakers in the first round in 2006 in seven games. The next year, the Suns dismissed the Lakers in five games. Afterward, Bryant demanded the Lakers make moves to upgrade their roster.
“It is very frustrating for me. It is beyond frustrating,” Bryant said then. “We are going on three years of still being on ground zero. We just have to do something. We have to see what direction this organization wants to go.”
Bryant publicly demanded to be traded and the Lakers weren’t considered a power entering the 2007-08 season. That changed when the team acquired Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers have reached the past two NBA Finals with Gasol and won last season’s championship.
The Suns are making their first West finals appearance since 2006 and didn’t even play in the postseason last season.
Only Bryant, Lamar Odom(notes), Andrew Bynum(notes), Luke Walton(notes) and Sasha Vujacic(notes) remain from the 2006-07 Lakers. Even so, the Suns’ arrival is a reminder of a forgettable period for Los Angeles. And other than possibly beating the rival Boston Celtics in the upcoming Finals, there is no bigger ghost than the Suns that the bitter Lakers want to exorcise. When again asked about the Suns late Monday, Bryant muttered several strong expletives before walking away.
Regardless, the Suns are playing as well as anyone since the All-Star break. Since losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in their first-round opener, the Suns have won eight of nine games. Phoenix is averaging 105.8 points in the postseason, nearly 10 more points per game than what it has allowed its opponents. Suns center Robin Lopez(notes), who has yet to play in the postseason because of a back injury, also is expected to return. The Lakers and Suns haven’t met since March 12, when the champs won 102-96 in Phoenix.
“We are very familiar with them as well,” Bryant said. “The difference with how they played when we met them in the regular season and how they play now is just confidence. They believe in what they’re doing.”
“They have a great combo, they have that two-man combo in Nash and Amar’e and their screen-and-roll situations are phenomenal,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We think that we have a good combination in Pau and Kobe and we’re going to try and match that.”
The Lakers have been hot themselves, winning six straight playoff games while impressively ending playoff series against Oklahoma City and Utah on the road. With Bryant and Andrew Bynum dealing with injuries, Los Angeles will get six days of rest before the start of the series. Bryant scored more than 30 points in every game of the Utah series while Gasol recorded a double-double in each contest.
“They got just about everything you want,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan said of the Lakers. “They got experience. They got guys that are long and big and can play inside. Gasol can go inside and outside with his game and he’s a terrific passer. They got all the size. They got a lot of guys that can pass the ball. That’s a tremendous asset for any team, and plus those guys have been in big games. They came out [Monday] and they put it on us tough. They’re tough to deal with and they put us out of sync because their defense is so good. Every shot you get is tough. They make you earn it. That’s why they won the championship.”
With the Lakers expected to be heavy favorites, the Suns seem to have everything to gain and nothing to lose as they try to make the Finals for the first time since 1993. But don’t tell that to Bryant. Judging from the ferocity in his eyes, you’d think the Lakers were the underdog with something to prove.