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Dan Bickley

First-round matchup with Lakers could be a nightmare for Suns

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns and Markieff Morris #88 of the Los Angeles Lakers jump for the opening tip during the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on March 21, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 111-94. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nightmares are not rewards. They don’t belong at the end of dream seasons.

Welcome to life on Planet Orange.

The other side of hard? That would be a path to the NBA Finals that includes a first-round matchup against the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers.

This is more than matchup problems, although many of those exist. The Lakers have seven players who are 6-foot-9 or taller. The Suns have four. The Lakers have exquisite frontcourt depth, featuring Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond.

Meanwhile, the Suns have a glaring weakness at interior depth. Deandre Ayton has made giant strides in 2021, but he remains raw and unpredictable, and he might be a foul magnet against the superstar talents of Davis. Ayton’s backups (Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky) would represent an easy feast for the Lakers, and asking the 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder to fill a defensive void in the paint is a bit much, even for a player with real gravitas.

We already know what those games might look like. Tons of offensive rebounds and second-chance points for the Lakers. Lots of free throws for the Lakers. Many one-shot possessions for the Suns, who will be forced to shoot the lights out against the NBA’s best defensive team.

In the end, a No. 2 seed would have to pull off an upset to advance. That’s not poetic justice. That’s just wrong.

This is also about our tender psyche.

Drawing the Lakers in the opening round of playoffs would feel like awful confirmation that we are eternally cursed as a sports market. The Suns have authored one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NBA history, ending an 11-year playoff drought with a team of grinders who scoff at load management, a team that has built the second-best record in the NBA.

In any given year, a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference should expect an inferior opponent in the first round of the playoffs. They do not deserve a towering opponent stung by injuries and indifference, a Lakers team that still possesses the best collection of talent in the NBA.

Suns general manager James Jones is also in a precarious position. He executed a string of brilliant maneuvers that have changed the game in Phoenix. He has stitched together one of the finer GM performances in Arizona history. He has earned the trust of the team’s volatile majority owner. He compelled Monty Williams to choose the Suns over the Lakers. He acquired Chris Paul, signed Jae Crowder and stole Torrey Craig.

Jones is creating an architectural masterpiece. But what if the one move he didn’t make spells our doom?

Jones chose not to bolster his frontcourt near the NBA trade deadline, even though the Lakers added Drummond to an already stacked lineup, even though the Lakers were perfectly equipped to expose the flaws in his basketball team.

In a perfect world, Jones doesn’t deserve any form of second-guessing, not after his collection of bold strokes. But a looming first-round matchup against a nemesis like the Lakers is high-risk, high-reward, and it comes with heavy consequences. Can you imagine the trolling we’d endure at the hands of bandwagon Lakers fans if the matchup backfires?

It might bring out the worst in us. Lose to the Lakers in the first round, and the homers/cheerleaders will be stretched into pretzels attempting to paint a pretty picture. Others will surely be convinced that NBA officials were conspiring against us all the way, per usual, because the league would never let the Lakers get eliminated by the mid-market Suns.

Bottom line: The only way the Suns can justify a postseason that ends before the NBA Finals is by accumulating precious and extensive playoff experience along the way. Something that helps propel them to a championship trophy next season.

That doesn’t happen with a first-round ouster to the Lakers. Nothing good comes from that, which is why our playoff opponent is serious business. It will be the ultimate test of our revamped fortunes, and whether Lady Luck has finally bought a ticket on the Phoenix bandwagon.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier