At the NBA level, the zone defense is a funny thing. It can be effective, but to use it in big chunks is generally seen as an admission a team can't guard the opposition man-to-man.
The Lakers shot over 57 percent in both Games 1 and 2, then 58 percent in the first quarter Sunday night in Game 3, generally against man D. Fair to say the Suns were ready to do some admitting.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry tried to get his guys in the zone by going zone. As much zone as you'll see a team play in a big game against an elite team. At times it worked well, namely a second quarter in which the Lakers scored only 15 points and turned it over six times, in others the Lakers picked it apart. Bottom line, though, against the Lakers a zone defense is essentially a challenge. Phoenix ceded control, and put the onus on the Lakers. Show some discipline, move without the ball, and you'll score. Don't, and you won't.
In the third quarter, the Lakers seemingly adjusted and tore up the Suns, shooting 60 percent en route to 37 points, cutting a seven point deficit to two. There were the sort of long jumpers a zone will encourage, but the Lakers also did damage in the soft spots of the defense. They got Pau Gasol to elbow, they sent cutters through the lane and to the bucket. Kobe Bryant had four assists, Gasol eight points. L.A. took nine free throws in 12 minutes after managing only three in the first half. It seemed as if every additional moment Phoenix before Gentry went back to more traditional defensive sets was manna from heaven.
But then the fourth quarter happened, and it all went down the drain as a toxic combination of turnovers and missed jumpers ultimately cost L.A. Game 3.
Start with the former. Six times the Lakers gave the ball away in the first 5:14 of the fourth quarter. For the game, Phoenix scored 14 points off L.A.'s 17 turnovers. All things considered, not so bad (by comparison, the Lakers had 11 points on seven Suns TO's.) The problem isn't the points allowed but the multiple possessions lost against a team capable of scoring in bunches. Can't happen. More importantly, the empty trips served only to shorten the clock and accentuate the Lakers' lesser qualities, namely a tendency to become enamored with perimeter play, the very shots a zone-heavy team wants to be taken.
As time ticks away and the deficit doesn't shrink, the pressure to fire from distance only increases.
The Lakers actually led 90-89 with 8:47 remaining, but a 9-2 run over the next 105 seconds, during which the Lakers turned it over twice (one resulting in a critical corner three from Jason Richardson) pushed Phoenix's lead back to six. A jumper from Amare Stoudemire near the six minute mark made it eight. Still plenty of time, but the Lakers seemed not to notice. Instead of attacking the middle, L.A. became increasingly passive, too often settling for open, quick threes. On this night, unlike during the first two games but like many throughout the season, the shots didn't fall. The Lakers were nine-of-32 from downtown. The disturbing number isn't necessarily the nine, but the 32.
Too many. A franchise record, and not the kind they want.
Give the Suns credit. With their season on the line, they played hard, and ground though their rough patches over the course of the game. Stoudemire, rightly maligned after the first two games, was awesome in Game 3. 42 points, 11 rebounds. He attacked from the opening bell, putting pressure on the Lakers and almost singlehandedly putting them in foul trouble. He'd shoot 18 free throws on the night. I'd asked before the game if Amare had any pride. Guess we got his answer. He was outstanding. Steve Nash had 15 assists, Richardson 19.
But while the series is now certain to return to Staples and the Suns will have a chance to tie things up Tuesday night, so much about Sunday's game makes it tough to believe Phoenix is ready to push L.A. in significant, series altering ways. I can't believe the Lakers won't attack the zone Phoenix will inevitably play with more consistency than they did tonight. There's almost always a diminishing return with that defense.
Moreover, the Lakers were done in as much by foul trouble and a discombobulated rotation than anything. Andrew Bynum picked up four fouls in his first seven minutes on the floor. Lamar Odom was neck deep in foul trouble all night. Kobe and Gasol were left to pile up minutes (45 for Pau, 43 for Kobe), and tired down the stretch. The Lakers couldn't get to the line early. And so on.
Phoenix will point to a lack of bench play and poor three-point shooting of their own as areas they'll expect to be better in Tuesday's Game 4, but ultimately it'll come down to their ability to sustain things defensively, whether with the zone or more conventional means.
I'm not convinced by any stretch, but that's why they play the games, right?
Without question, Amare Stoudemire's 42 points did their damage. At the same time, stars are supposed to elevate their teams when backs and walls are in close proximity. Throw in the brutal criticism Stoudemire's taken since the Suns fell into an 0-2 hole, and some form of explosion was fairly predictable.
Robin Lopez hitting the big 2-0, however, was anything but by the book. Eight-for-10 from the field, Lopez's showing wasn't just a curve ball. It was impressively varied. Elbow jumpers. Scores off pick and roll action or cutting without the ball. Hook shots on the run or facing up. For a guy just who's played three games since March 26 and known as "the crappier Lopez" since entering the league, particularly on offense, he was quite the force.
Lopez set an even more striking tone with his toughness. He didn't just put back a miss by Steve Nash. He viciously posterized Bynum in the process. He didn't just foul Ron Artest while blocking his shot. He put the Tru Warier on his back, then busted out the craziest eyes this side of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And yes, his "accidental" elbow against Fisher's head was an absolute cheap shot. Not necessarily "dangerous," but definitely cheap. No cheaper, however, than Fish's "attempt to fight through a Luis Scola screen" during the 2009 playoffs, a bush league move Laker fans often championed as a message the Lakers wouldn't be pushed around.
I wouldn't attempt to justify either sequence --like Fish against Houston, Lopez perhaps could have been tossed-- but I get what motivated his actions.
15: The points shared by five Phoenician bench players. Goran Dragic led all reserves with six, and his bounty came via a one-for-four shooting clip. Channing Frye remained abysmal from the field --seven misses in as many tries-- en route to just one point, giving him now four in all for the series. This collective invisibility presented a prime opportunity for the Lakers, but their bench was equally ineffective. Shannon Brown (five points in an erratic performance) and Jordan Farmar (3 points) didn't maintain their strong play at home, while Lamar Odom had more fouls (six) than field goals (four), his ten-point DQ riddled with lapses on both sides on the ball.
5: Phoenix's grand total of successful three-pointers. In the meantime, twenty were launched. By my math, that's a success rate of just 25 percent. If you were told before the game the Suns would make just one-quarter of their treys and just 46.3 percent of their shots, period, I imagine you'd take it. I know I would have. We'd both be a day late and a dollar short.
42: Trips to the line were at a premium for Phoenix, and with an 88 percent conversion rate, they didn't go wasted. Laker fans will undoubtedly cry... wait for it... foul, but there's really not much justification for complaint. For starters, the Lakers got 20 visits of their own, which isn't ridiculously low. Second, the Lakers were constantly in the early penalty and often picking up dumb fouls while vulnerable, further exacerbating the problem. And finally, the Suns got more charity because they weren't waiting around for a handout. They relentlessly attacked the cup and got rewarded for their troubles, while the Lakers relentlessly jacked up outside shots and received absolutely no rewards.
To the more aggressive team goes the spoils.
18: Kobe Bryant was just one rebound short of turning 36 points and eleven assists into a triple-double. Pau Gasol went increasingly underutilized as the game commenced, but made the most of the touches. 23 points on 11-for-14, with nine boards as gravy. Two All-Star performances with very little supporting cast presence... save Derek Fisher. 18 points, including a trio of treys. Teams with championship aspirations need their veterans to step up on the road. Fish did just that.
6:36: The minute differential between Andrew Bynum's and Josh Powell's PT. Not much of a gap, considering one is a starting center and the other a third string power forward who played just 55 seconds. Was Drew's 7:31 of run the result of foul trouble (four) or ineffectiveness? The latter's hard to claim with certainty, because he didn't really get enough of a chance to succeed or fail. But the onslaught of fouls don't just reinforce how much his knee is bothering and limiting him. They drive home how the injury will likely render Bynum's postseason contributions more "crap shoot" than "steady."