In the end it will be Steve Nash and and the Phoenix Suns who will try to knock Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers off their NBA throne in the Western Conference Final. Game 1 is Monday.

Are we going to see another NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers?

We’re one game closer. The Celtics are up 3-2 on the Cleveland Cavaliers in their Eastern Conference semifinal, while out West, the Lakers have already advanced to the next round and what is certain to be a crowd-pleasing matchup with the Phoenix Suns.

Robin LopezAlthough the Suns have looked very capable over the first two rounds of the playoffs, the betting odds are moving in the other direction. The series price on the Lakers was -320 at press time; at the open, the defending champions were -300 favorites.

Join the Preakness Stakes 2010 Handicapping Contest

Phoenix is quite a talented team for a +270 underdog. But the Suns do not have the home-court advantage in this matchup, and in the history of the NBA playoffs, only 23.4 percent of the teams who play on the road in Game 1 have gone on to win a best-of-seven series. That number includes the 2010 playoffs, where home teams have advanced nine of 11 times thus far. Winning on the road is that tough.

Which makes the Suns that much more interesting as an underdog special. They’re 4-1 SU and ATS in away games this postseason, and they made it into the Western final by upsetting the San Antonio Spurs twice at the AT&T Center. These are not the same Suns who got hip-checked out of the playoffs by San Antonio in three of Mike D’Antoni’s four seasons as head coach. Steve Nash (21.67 PER) and Amare Stoudemire (22.69 PER) are still there, and current head coach Alvin Gentry runs much the same offense as D’Antoni, but the supporting cast is stronger and deeper than ever.

This is going to be problematic for the Lakers. Oklahoma City’s superior bench strength helped the Thunder give the champions a scare in the first round, then the Lakers faced less of an obstacle against the injury-sapped Utah Jazz in the second round.

But in the immortal words of Bob Roberts, the times they are a-changin’ back. The Suns expect to have their full roster available for next Monday’s series opener against L.A.; starting center Robin Lopez (17.66 PER) is expected to be ready after sitting out since late March with a back injury.

I don’t think it would be too dramatic to say that Lopez is the key figure for handicappers in this series. The Lakers were 3-1 SU and ATS versus the Suns this year with a pair of blowout victories at the Staples Center.  But those two laughers were early in the season, before Lopez had worked his way into the starting lineup.

March 12, 2010: Lakers 102, Suns 96 (L.A. -2)
December 28, 2009: Lakers 103, Suns 118 (PHX +1)
December 6, 2009: Suns 88, Lakers 108 (L.A. -9½)
November 12, 2009: Suns 102, Lakers 121 (L.A. -8)

Phoenix was much more competitive in the last two games, partly because of home-court advantage and partly because of the rapid maturation of Lopez into a quality center. Lopez may be playing in the shadow of his twin brother, New Jersey Nets center Brook Lopez (20.11 PER), but that just gives the Suns more betting value. He’s exactly the kind of player the Jazz desperately needed in the second round: a big 7-footer with sound post defense.

Have I said enough yet about how thin the Lakers bench is, especially in the frontcourt? Phoenix has the luxury of bringing Channing Frye (15.09 PER, 43.9 percent from long range), Louis Amundson (14.44 PER, 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes) and Jared Dudley (13.60 PER, 45.8 percent from long range) into the game as part of an effective second unit. We can talk all day about former MVPs Nash and Kobe Bryant, but bench strength is the reason Phoenix is 33-19 ATS against winning teams this year and the Lakers are 22-28 ATS.

My first impression is that the Suns are in good shape to cover at home; it’s a different story at Staples Center, where the Lakers have opened as 6.5-point favorites with a total of 210.5. Los Angeles has won all five of its home playoff games at 3-2 ATS. Bryant and the rest of the Lakers will have enjoyed six days off since eliminating the Jazz; the starting rotation can take big minutes early if necessary, but the advantage will shift to the Suns the longer the series goes. And it could be a while.