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Dan Bickley

Lakers matchup is the ‘hard’ Suns coach Monty Williams spoke of

Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talks with Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Arena on April 07, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Monty Williams was right. Everything we want is on the other side of hard.

Welcome to hard.

Only in Phoenix would a second-seeded playoff team earn a first-round series against a nemesis, not just an opponent; where the reward for a dream season is the defending NBA champions and their formidable frontcourt, where everything we want is on the other side of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Like always.

This series is fraught with peril. A magical season could be over in two weeks. An unhealthy percentage of fans are already obsessing over officiating, convinced the playing field is already tilted, that the fix is already in.

Throw in LeBron James’ theatrics and drama-queen antics, and extreme agitation could be in the forecast.

It seems vital for the Suns to win Game 1, to avoid the suffocating pressure of chasing a series from behind, with a team that has very little playoff experience.

Since the pandemic, our market has been flooded with people migrating here from California. And that means more Lakers jerseys will be spotted in our new arena on Sunday. More trolls of the worst kind.

There is a fear that, for all the great chess moves from Suns general manager James Jones, he left this team a piece short. He failed to properly plan for Anthony Davis.

From social media to Valley barstools, there is an outspoken bravado in the air, a belief that the Suns are ready for this heavy challenge. But there is also anxiety, that we are just pawns in a story that destined to end in heartbreak. Like they always seem to do. Because we are cursed in Phoenix.

The Suns must save us from all of that. They must spare us from more of the same.

To beat the Lakers, they need Devin Booker to seize his own stardom. The real playoffs haven’t even begun, and we’ve witnessed dazzling performances from Steph Curry and Jayson Tatum. If Booker wants to be legendary, like his idol Kobe Bryant instructed, the bell rings on Sunday.

The Suns need to be true stoics in this series, unflappable between the ears, emotionally strong at all times. The Lakers exhaust smaller opponents with offensive rebounds and second-chance points, the stuff that can instantly negate great defensive stands. Each one takes a psychological toll.

The Suns must embrace the physicality that comes with the postseason, where it’s essential to man up and box out and not look to officials for help.

This series will be a fork in the road for Deandre Ayton, and whether he can compete without withering in a series like this. He must defend without fouling, imposing his own will on the series.

Obviously, the Suns will have to shoot very well from the perimeter because offensive rebounds will be scarce. And in the end, they must be able to break the force field of James.

LeBron is showing signs of age and attrition. His injured ankle is structurally weak. He’s also the greatest player of his generation, the guy who drilled a deep three-pointer under duress to lift the Lakers over the Warriors.

Before that play-in game Wednesday, Steve Kerr said something very profound and relatable in Arizona:

“There is no bigger challenge in basketball than trying to beat LeBron.”

It’s an unfortunate truth. Because James is still the king until he’s not. And if the Suns find a way to beat him and his Lakers?

It will be a new day in Phoenix. The other side of hard.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. 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 AZCentral.com 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 ArizonaSports.com.
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