Phoenix 115, Los Angeles Lakers 106; series tied, 2-2
I've never seen anything like it. Have you?
If it weren't for fatigue, the Phoenix Suns would have rolled the entire fourth quarter with five bench players on the floor: Goran Dragic(notes), Leandro Barbosa(notes), Jared Dudley(notes), Channing Frye(notes), and Louis Amundson(notes). That's significant in and of itself, as that crew essentially turned the game on its ear in the second, and then the fourth quarter. The Lakers had an eight-point advantage in the first and third quarters, mind you, with the Suns starters milling about.
But what got me the most, beyond the bench dominance or the fact that only tired legs led to Steve Nash(notes) and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) (those bums) coming back into the contest with around four minutes left in Phoenix's Game 4 win, was the way Gentry uses this bench. It's been growing all year, but we're now at a point where Gentry is just alternating teams. I've never seen anything like it at this level.
Usually, when you lean heavily on your bench, you leave in a starter or two. Usually someone that can handle the ball or set up a play in a pinch, and Grant Hill(notes) fits that bill expertly. Or you leave in a big guy, just in case a play breaks down, that can score. Or the hot guy, like Jason Richardson(notes). Or a two-time MVP, whatever. Or any of the starters that helped wrest 18 offensive rebounds from the Lakers on Tuesday.
The Suns? They clear everyone, and bring a whole new five out. I'm sure this takes place in college, I'm sure there was some trapping unit from 1983 that I'm forgetting in the NCAAs, but in the pros? In the conference finals, no less? I've never seen anything like it.
Five in, five out. And not only that, but on some nights, that second five dominates. Dominates their bench counterparts, or dominates a Laker team rolling with Kobe Bryant(notes) playing the best basketball he's played all year. Assuming he's allowed to see the basketball.
I will start with the quibbles behind Bryant's game. First, he didn't see the ball much in the final quarter, and that's his fault as much as it is the Lakers' fault. At some point, especially after watching Derek Fisher(notes) destroy two possessions in a row for Los Angeles, Kobe's going to have to start bringing the ball up.
It's understandable that this guy is tired, that the Lakers have to save his legs, and that bringing the ball up allows for a whole different offensive set for Los Angeles. But if you're going to bring Kobe out to start the fourth quarter, as the Lakers did, then fatigue clearly isn't your biggest concern. You want to win now. And if you want to win now, you have to involve this brilliant, scary-great player in every possession. Even if he doesn't shoot, even if he doesn't get the assist. You involve him, and scare the piss out of the opposition.
The other quibble? Because Kobe was so hot from long range (6-9 shooting), he didn't drive much, and only picked up four free throws all game. Not his fault, but with Bryant not earning fouls and subsequently not putting Phoenix in the penalty, the Lakers struggled to earn freebies (just 13 tries, just seven makes), while the Suns lived at the line again (32 attempts, 22 tries; 16 misses for two teams that usually don't miss that many).
Beyond that, Kobe was astonishing. Giving us a little all-around LeBron James(notes)-action along with the outside shooting that James can't touch. Thirty-eight points (only missed seven shots from the field in 22 attempts), seven boards, 10 assists, just two turnovers, a steal, a block. And he wasn't enough.
Because the Lakers couldn't guard anyone.
Over 133 points per 100 possessions for Phoenix, and for a conference finals game, that's a monstrous number. The only mark that usually comes close to that is when you see one white-hot team going against one that doesn't care — Orlando against Atlanta — but certainly not in the third round. But Phoenix had it rolling.
It doesn't stand out as much as the Lakers missing yet another 3-pointer while Bryant doesn't get a look, up against that "vaunted" Phoenix zone. And it doesn't stand out because, let's face it, we're used to the Suns putting up big numbers. But this is a bit of a shocker, and it's the reason why this series is tied. Los Angeles, which improved considerably on D this year, enough to be ranked in the top three in defensive efficiency for a good chunk of the season, is giving up way too much on that end.
We suspect a bit more Ron Artest(notes) in Game 5; we don't know who he'll guard, but we know he'll be around. Understand though, for now, that the Lakers aren't playing defense at a level that we've grown accustomed to, based on their fantastic play on that end for the bulk of the regular season. Too much penetration, not enough accountability in transition.
Still, I don't want to hear people killing analysts for telling you that the Lakers are having trouble with the Phoenix zone. Sure, the team put up over 123 points per 100 possessions (around 113 per 100 leads the NBA) and shot 49.5 percent from the floor, but the Lakers are having trouble with the zone.
The team put up just 22 points in the fourth quarter, because they're having trouble with the zone. Understand that anything less than a little penetration, two or three passes, and a high-percentage finish (either off the initial shot, or an offensive rebound) and score is a letdown. Because, against a zone, the Los Angeles Lakers should be scoring way, way more than they are.
So 22 points in the fourth quarter is "having trouble with the Phoenix zone." Because the Lakers should be dissecting Phoenix on its way toward 30 to 40 points, and not acting as if they'd never seen the style before. The Lakers are having trouble with the zone because they're playing bad offensive basketball in the face of the zone, and not scoring at a rate they should for as long (48 minutes) as Phoenix plays it. Not sure how much simpler I could make this.
And though the Lakers put up a ton of points overall, and despite the fact that bad defense lost the Lakers this game, when you can't concentrate long enough to execute well in the face of a zone like that for the entire game, especially that 22-point fourth quarter? You are having trouble with the Phoenix zone.
I am not having trouble with this series. Despite each team trading off playing below how it should, this has turned into a fun one. Continue apace.