Suns/Lakers Series, Game One Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

CAN RED HOT PHOENIX DERAIL
THE LAKERS BUDDING DYNASTY?

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

There's a chance, as you're about to see in our preview numbers, that the Suns/Lakers series that gets started tonight to determine the NBA's Western Conference champions could get very interesting very quickly (just like the Boston/Orlando series did yesterday!).

Sure, the Lakers are a budding dynasty right now in the West, with two straight trips to the league Finals already under their belts...and Kobe Bryant still a few years a way from retirement. The core talent is awesome, and there are still upgrades that can be made in the future at point guard and on the bench. Phoenix really is as good as their recent record though. They provide a real threat to the Lakers.

Consider:

*Nobody was playing better ball at the end of the regular season than the Phoenix Suns. Computer models that focused exclusively on production had them best in the West even though a few other teams were also closing well.

*Phoenix has shored up its past defense and rebounding weaknesses. They're not as scary as the other powers. But, they're far from a pushover physically, as you saw in the San Antonio series. They use their speed and athleticism to chase down rebounds.

*Steve Nash is a man on a mission. He wants to play in the finals and hopefully win a championship. Time is running out. You saw what that fire inside led to in the last round. It's not going anywhere.

*You'll see in a moment that Phoenix will begin every game with a slight 'head start' because they're likely to win the three point category. That factor has allowed both Phoenix and Orlando to coast to their current positions. We have a rare situation here where a series UNDERDOG is likely to win a key category.

Let's run through all of our key indicator stats to get a fuller perspective. It's easy to focus on one thing or another and jump to conclusions. Let's work our way towards a conclusion.

SERIES PREVIEW: PHOENIX VS. THE L.A. LAKERS

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
LA Lakers 5th in the NBA
Phoenix 19th

Though Phoenix has improved on this side of the ball...that just means going from one of the league's worst to the middle of the pack. The Lakers have always been underrated defensively (because the media focuses on Kobe's scoring rather than what REALLY matters!). You have to assume LA will have an edge once again this time around. Phoenix did play better than 19th in the last round against San Antonio. Here, they're dealing with a size disadvantage inside that could cause them some headaches.

REBOUND RATE
LA Lakers 8th
Phoenix 13th

Fairly close, but you have to give the edge to the Lakers unless Andrew Bynum's health deteriorates to the point where he's less of a factor. It was a great sign for Phoenix fans that they weren't beaten up on the boards by the Spurs. On a game-by-game basis, the Spurs were +6, +12, -6, and -5 against San Antonio. That's +7 overall, or almost +2 per game. AGAINST THE SPURS! The Lakers edge is there, but it's only a slight edge (Lakers were just over +4 per game vs. Utah by the way). It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is the Suns from a few years ago. They're still running, and Nash is still bleeding. It's a team better MUCH better suited to the playoffs though because of their improvements in defense and rebounding.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
Phoenix 1st
LA Lakers 11th

This is where Phoenix makes its move. Their ability to hit treys makes them much more efficient on a per-possession basis. In fact, nobody was better this year! You'll recall in yesterday's preview that Orlando had a big edge on Boston in all categories. Vegas is seeing the two series as relatively even. In fact, the prices on the series opened at -300 for both. Subsequent action has made the Lakers a bigger favorite, and Orlando was smaller heading into Sunday's series opener. The efficiency stats say that's backwards. Phoenix has a better chance of beating the Lakers than Boston does of beating Orlando over seven games.

THREE-POINTERS PER GAME
Phoenix 8.9
LA Lakers 6.5

That's almost two and a half per game, which is about 7.5 points or so as a head start. Now, the Lakers do have it in them to make a run at 9-10. We saw that in the Utah series. Just remember that Phoenix gets there on average, the Lakers have to produce a bit over their heads to get there.

TURNOVER RATE
LA Lakers 5th
Phoenix 17th
This is the least important of our indicators based on connections to past success. It is possible to win a championship with a poor turnover rate, as Boston proved two years ago. Still, in close games, teams who do a better job treasuring possessions will have a slight edge. As great as Nash is as a point guard, it's the Lakers who win this category. Nash is much more likely to throw a bad pass or a hurried pass than Kobe is. Kobe wants the ball and won't give it up!

For the series, we have to give the nod to the Lakers. But, it's far from a firm headshake. Phoenix can't compete here. Phoenix is better suited than Utah to compete...and equal to or better than the Oklahoma City team that took the Lakers to six games back in the first round (OK City was much better than a typical eighth seed). Ultimately, we prefer the inside edge to the outside edge when the pressure is on and all the marbles are at stake. The fact that Phoenix should have trouble with the LA bigs ultimately makes the Lakers a favorite. For now, we think the Vegas prices overstate their edge. There is an edge though.

WATCH & WIN MONDAY

 With a lucrative night in front of the television set awaits us on Monday! It starts at 7 ET on ESPN when the Red Sox make the first trip of the season to the Bronx to take on the Yankees. Then 9 ET, there's a a real explosion on TNT, as the Suns and Lakers open their Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles. You've got high-profile games involving very public teams, meaning that knowing what way the smart money is going and what way square money is moving is of paramount importance. The Jim Hurley Network has all the connections in Las Vegas to make that happen and we have an army of stat handicappers with sharp numbers that ensure we can pound those soft targets. And they are soft indeed on Monday! There's value on the board and we've got the winner in both Red Sox-Yanks & Suns-Lakers!

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Let's see what Vegas says about tonight's series opener...

GAME ONE: PHOENIX AT THE LA LAKERS
Vegas Line: Lakers by 6, total of 210.5

Home court is worth 3-4 in the playoffs, so the market says the Lakers are 2-3 points better. It could turn out that your success in this series will come from whether you think that's a shade too low, or a shade too high. If they're only one better, or we're close to neutrality...than the series dog is going to offer value. If Gasol and Bynum can wreak havoc inside like they did through most of the Utah series...then the assessment is probably too low. The Lakers won by 5 and 8 at home, 1 and 15 on the road against the Jazz...for a 7-point per game average result.

JIM HURLEY has a strong opinion about tonight's game. We haven't talked about the Over/Under yet...and this release could well be on the total. The less said there the better because we want to protect the information for our clients.

You can sign up for tonight's action, or the rest of the NBA playoffs by calling 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on our baseball too. There's a big series in New York this week with the Red Sox visiting the Yankees for the first time this season. You can bet our sources will be all over that one. Other series of interest that get underway tonight:

NY Mets/Atlanta
San Francisco/San Diego
LA Angels/Texas
Minnesota/Toronto
Game day releases and longer term packages can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card.

Back tomorrow with a preview of Game Two in Boston/Orlando Eastern series. You learned last week how important it is to read the NOTEBOOK. The mainstream media often misses the angles that matter most. VISIT EVERY DAY SO YOU KNOW WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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