Gentry puts Suns in winning zone

PHOENIX -- For a moment, as Alvin Gentry prepared to discuss the Suns' 118-109 victory over the Lakers in Game 3, he made a motion as if he were going to sit at the separate podium normally used by Phil Jackson for his news conferences. Gentry thought better of it, but if ever there were a night for him to try resting on Jackson's throne, it would be Sunday, when the coaching move of the game belonged to Gentry.

The Suns went to a zone defense in the second quarter and finally found a way to turn down the volume on a Lakers offense that had been buzzing at ear-pounding levels. Kobe Bryant, who looked ready to post a 30-8-8 stat line by halftime, stopped having his way with individual defenders.

The Lakers' attack suddenly turned into a lot of Ron Artest jumpers off the dribble and Lamar Odom 3-point attempts.

Depending on who was talking, the Lakers either went 2-for-17 against the zone (radio analyst Hubie Brown's numbers, and how can you doubt Hubie?), 4-for-21 (according to Gentry) or 4-for-19 (Pau Gasol wait a minute, players chart possession results?). Whatever, the net result was a 35 percent shooting quarter and only 15 points.

The Lakers did produce a 37-point third quarter, but by then it was too late. The Suns had wiped out a seven-point Lakers lead and found their chance to fight their way back into the series.

"It took us a long time to figure [the zone] out," Gasol said. "And they stayed with it, pretty much for I don't know how long. Over 30 minutes, it felt like. We made bad passes. We weren't sharp with our execution against the zone.

"We didn't make the ball work. We really never got it to go inside-out. That's how you hurt the zone really well; make the zone collapse and then kick it out and get a better shot."

The Lakers will have a day to prepare their counterattack, but their inability to find a quick response cost them their eight-game playoff winning streak and a chance to put the Darth Vader squeeze on the Suns' necks. Now Jackson could be forced into the difficult choice of whether to sit down Andrew Bynum for Game 4.

An aggressive Amare Stoudemire (42 points and 11 rebounds) put Bynum in foul trouble right away, and his cartilage-damaged right knee limited him to two points and two rebounds during the 7 minutes Jackson actually used him. Without Bynum, the Lakers' inside advantage isn't so decisive anymore. But an extra day's rest wouldn't help more than the three off days the Lakers had between Games 2 and 3. And Bynum's absence would be even more noticeable if Odom has another off night as he did Sunday (10 points on 4-for-14 shooting with six rebounds).

The Suns' postgame injury concern was milder and starting to become routine: another blow to Steve Nash's face. This time a collision with Derek Fisher realigned Nash's nose and he self-corrected it back to a somewhat straight slope.

The Suns shot a modest 46 percent and not even a return to their home court could bring about the breakout shooting night we've been waiting for in this series. But they had been muttering for days that they didn't need their offense to rev at its usual RPMs, they needed to find a way to get stops against a Lakers team that shot 58 percent in the first two games.

"I don't know if [the offense] will come," Nash said. "If it does, it's nice, but if it doesn't we've got to find ways to match them. And tonight the zone helped, but I think our tenacity was important as well."

Sunday's result begged the obvious question: Why haven't the Suns gone to the zone defense earlier and more often?

Gentry said he was reluctant to go to use it in Game 3 because during practice Saturday "it was the worst it's ever been."

Then the Lakers shot 58 percent and scored 32 points in the first quarter.

"We said, 'Well, we've got to give it a try,'" Gentry said.

"It's easier than trying to guard those guys on the inside and it's also easier than trying to guard Kobe. So tonight it worked. And we stuck with it."

Gentry knows who the big-name coach in the series is. It's the man with the 10 championship rings and $12 million salary. Gentry has faced an uphill battle just to match up in the pregame interview sessions. Jackson's vacillate between uber-important updates on his likelihood of coaching the Lakers next season to humorous takes on the "other triangle" involving him, Jeanie Buss and Jerry Buss. Gentry can be funny in his own way, but when a team is thoroughly outplayed the way the Suns had been in the first two games of this series, the questions and thus the responses can dry up. (Actual question from Wednesday: "How was shootaround?")

The two coaching jobs have a completely different set of requirements, and there's no telling how Gentry would fare with the challenges of integrating Bryant's desire to dominate into the team's agenda, or keeping various aspiring reality show stars locked into the task at hand, all amid the pressures of coaching the Lakers in Los Angeles. But Gentry had to find a way for his team to have a chance, and he made the right call.

For now, the Suns only guaranteed themselves another chance to wear their road jerseys in Los Angeles for Game 5 on Thursday. But they also gave themselves a chance to tie the series with a home victory Tuesday and put all of the Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals planning on hold. A 42-20 advantage in free throw attempts helped, but it wasn't an issue when the Lakers led after the first quarter despite an 11-2 free throw disparity in the Suns' favor. And casting jumpers against the zone wasn't the way to earn more trips to the line.

The Suns finally found a way to keep the Lakers from making more than half of their field goals. Gentry hasn't quite earned the right to sit in Jackson's chair yet. But the Lakers' seats just got a little less comfortable.