Four games into the Western Conference Finals and we finally have a series. The Suns were able to hold home-court in Phoenix and send this thing back to Los Angeles tied at two games apiece. What once looked like a Laker sweep has quickly become a best-of-three.
So how did the smaller Suns neutralize the long Lakers? Much credit has been given to the 2-3 zone that Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry has employed, as it has frustrated the Lakers to an extent and forced them into taking plenty of bad shots. But there is much more to these two losses than a simple zone defense.
According to the Orange County Register, Lakers super-duper-star Kobe Bryant thinks it all comes down to one thing: defense.
The Register quoted Kobe as saying:
Our defense could have been much better, I think. You know coming up here, we lost a sense of urgency defensively. I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone. And I think it kind of flipped our attention to detail defensively. Our focus was on the other side of the floor, which doesn’t win championships. So we need to get back to ground zero when it comes to that.
We lost the game because our defense sucked … Like I said, we’ve got to do a much better job defensively. Paying attention to those guys, all of them, and staying in front of your man and things like that … Our attention needs to be on the defensive end, period. That’s second chance opportunities. Their bench came in and gave them a big boost in getting balls back and getting them extra possessions. We’ve got to cut that stuff out.
A clearly agitated and annoyed Bryant mentioned defense over ten times when talking to reporters post-game. The Lakers offense was flawless in the first two games of the series, and because of this they were able to get away with the fact that Phoenix was also playing at a high level.
However anyone who has watched playoff basketball knows that once you hit the road, you’re defense becomes ten times more important. The Suns especially are a team that feed off of two things; the crowd and momentum.
The Lakers did a terrible job of preventing these things by not managing the ball well, focusing so much on their offense against a zone that they should have no trouble with that they completely lost their defensive intensity. Suddenly the contested three’s and shots in the paint that the Suns were taking in L.A. became wide-open shots and dunks in Phoenix.
While the Lakers have one of the most offensively talented teams in the league, they are not going to win a championship by simply outscoring the opposition. Los Angeles must go back to playing defense like they did in the regular season, when they were the fifth best team in terms of opponents field goal percentage and first in the NBA in opponents three-point field goal percentage. Take a look at the numbers from the regular season in comparison to the rest of the postseason and specifically last two games in Phoenix:
Laker Opponents in the Regular Season: 44% FG, 32% three’s
Laker Opponents in the Playoffs: 43% FG, 32% three’s
Suns Last Two Games: 79-166, 48% FG, 32% three’s
While the Lakers have played consistently good defense all season, even putting up better numbers in the postseason, the Suns have been able to shoot a high percentage the last two games and take a high number of shots due to their running style. While their three-point percentage is down, that number is deceptive because most of their makes have come during big runs, specifically in the second and fourth quarters of the game.
Not only has the defense been an issue, but yet another problem facing the Lakers is their lack of production from anyone not named Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Lamar Odom and Ron Artest specifically were missing in action in Phoenix. Take a look at their numbers each game this series and you will see their importance in the wins and losses in this series:
Game 1: Artest/Odom – 15/29 FG, 33 points, 24 rebounds, 8 assists
Game 2: Artest/Odom – 13/19 FG, 35 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists
Game 3: Artest/Odom – 8/27 FG, 22 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists
Game 4: Artest/Odom – 12/25 FG, 28 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists
With an already unsteady bench and an less than 100% Andrew Bynum, the Lakers need Artest and Odom to step up and offer stability to the team. As their numbers have gone down so have the Lakers offensively.
Lastly, an issue facing the Lakers may be one they have dealt with all season long, and that is complacency (arrogance?). L.A. cruised through the regular season, not showing very much effort in games they should have been dominating and ultimately stumbling into a 2-2 series tie with the Thunder in the first round. They reeled off eight consecutive wins after that and seemed to have finally woken up, only to fall right back into old habits after taking a 2-0 lead on the Suns.
The Lakers need to realize that this is the Western Conference Finals, not the first round of the playoffs. Teams don’t make it this far by luck, you have to play at a high-level every game and you must have a sense of urgency every time you take the floor.
While the zone defense has been a key to the Suns winning the past two games, the main culprits bringing down the Lakers right now are not only a lack of defense and support from role players, but also a complacency that leaves L.A. thinking they can flip a switch and win whenever they want, something that you can not do this late in the playoffs.
Granted the Lakers have scored less, but in the two losses they scored 109 and 106 points respectively, which should be more than enough to win a playoff game in the Western Conference Finals. Their focus should not be on how to beat the zone, but rather how to stop the Suns from running and getting open shots.
If the Lakers can establish themselves as a team dedicated to defense first and offense last, while receiving contributions from role players such as Odom/Artest/Jordan Farmar/Shannon Brown, they should be able to right the ship in time to make it back to a third consecutive NBA Finals.
If not, then Steve Nash may finally shed the label of being the only MVP in NBA history to not play in an NBA Finals.
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a