Phoenix 118, Los Angeles Lakers 109; Lakers lead series, 2-1
There's no point in saying that writers don't enjoy throwing cold water all over a good time, taking the hose to the proverbial happy copulatin' dogs, because there are a ton of writers that do enjoy acting the role of Debbie Downer following a game like this. I don't have to act that part out, because Phil Jackson more or less came through for me on that end, following Game 3.
He acted as if the entire contest was a bit of a laugh, and took every chance he could to effuse an aura that said, "we're good, we're better, and this was a fluke" after the contest.
The Lakers are better. The Lakers are pretty good. And, considering how well the Lakers have played recently, and how well they've played against the Suns all year, this probably could accurately be described as a fluke.
The problem for Los Angeles? The Suns could fluke it up long enough to make this a series. And I'm not just talking about tying it up.
Because the Suns can play like this, consistently. Sure, it had a lot of production-level things go their way in a style that probably won't be approximated as a rule — the giant, 37-16 free-throw make advantage, 20 points from Robin Lopez(notes), Andrew Bynum's(notes) quick fouls that were unlucky even for Andrew — but Phoenix can also play like this, again.
And the scary bit for Laker fans? Los Angeles can play like this, again. They've done it before. Quite a bit, actually.
"Like this" involved a pretty unsophisticated reaction to a 2-3 zone that Phoenix tossed out a few minutes into the second quarter. It turned the game on its ear, forced the Lakers to concentrate offensively, and the Lakers kinda decided to pass on concentrating offensively. Over 111 points per 100 possessions for Los Angeles, including a 37-point third quarter to follow that 15-point second quarter, but it was Los Angeles' inability to properly handle the goofball Phoenix D that led to the team's first loss in nine tries.
Stoudemire's ability to square his shoulders on a running finish, or use angles to his advantage off a drive or screen and roll-influenced dive remains unparalleled in this league. He just has everything working for him, when he wants to take his time with the finish on the fly, and the Lakers didn't have a chance with him on Sunday night.
Forty-two points on 14-of-22 shooting, he got to the line early to set the tone, finishing with 14 made free throws, 11 rebounds, and just two turnovers (pretty solid for the sheer amount of times he ended up running to the hoop). Stoudemire had the answers, and I'm not going to kill the Laker D for the way he ran all over it. The only possible thing I could ask for is to plant a zoned guard in the lane to gum up Stoudemire's driving angle, but you know what? You go stand in front of Amar'e Stoudemire while he runs at you as quickly as his legs allow.
Lopez was great, he has that aimed-in jumper that he almost shoots down at the rim, and his aim was true. Same for a series of little hooks, as well. He's a legitimate threat off of a screen and roll, and he did well to gather himself, especially in the second half. And not only did he pop Derek Fisher(notes) on the top of the head with an intentional "unintentional" elbow (you know what I mean), he also got Derek later in the game with a pretty nasty screen in the fourth quarter.
Steve Nash(notes) clearly was running things, but his teammates put themselves — literally and figuratively — in a place to succeed. He made the expert pass, he put the pressure on the Laker D long enough to open up spaces, but it's up to the bigs to connect, and connect (62 combined points from your starting big forward and center? I'll take that) they did. Nash had 17 points and 15 assists to just one turnover. Jason Richardson(notes) was 4-7 shooting from long range and finished with 19 points, as well.
The Suns needed those contributions, because the bench was off again. Channing Frye(notes) clearly does not want any part of competing on this level, and he missed all seven of his shots from the floor. Beyond him, the Phoenix bench shot 3-14, and just wasn't helping.
What didn't help the Lakers was the team's impatience, and insistence on overreacting to what sort of seemed like the first good shot in the face of that Phoenix zone.
According to Phil Jackson, the triangle is at its best when the pressure is really peaking, so the lack of traps or obvious double-teams that a zone gives you probably hurt the Lakers. The zone was just sort of there, not really providing any answers, so I can understand why the Lakers fell a little short, initially. But by the fourth quarter, come on. It was just one or two passes, and then the Big Give Up.
Ron Artest(notes) took four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and missed three of four. Kobe Bryant(notes), on the heels of a masterful first three quarters, missed 5-of-8 shots. Pau Gasol(notes) played the entire fourth quarter, and took one shot. One shot. Zone or no, he needed the ball in his hands, even if he ended up taking just one shot (the assists or pass that led to the assist would have been enough to keep this close coming down the stretch) as a result. Instead, Lamar Odom(notes), 2-5 shooting in the quarter.
A couple of passes, and you had a lay-in. Every time there was a bit of extended pressure on a Laker like Gasol, two quick passes resulted in a high-percentage shot. Every time, in that third and fourth. So why go away from those quick passes, and the ideal that tells you that — after making Phoenix chase the tossed ball a few more times — there would always be a better shot some seven or eight seconds from now?
No idea, but that's how Los Angeles worked. And in spite of how fantastic Kobe was individually — 36 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds — this is a five-man game. You can't tilt the court that far to one side, and hope to consistently find a way to keep a defense, even Phoenix's defense, on edge.
It goes two ways from here.
This could be it for the Lakers. The blip. Phoenix plays the perfect game — it really did — the Lakers laugh down their sleeve at the Suns and proceed to break a few hearts in Game 4.
Or, they could roll as they did too often in January, February, March and April. Iffy ball movement, iffy spacing, a potent offense but not a dangerous offense when needed. And if needed, an offense that relies on Kobe to be the man hitting a game-winner in a contest that should have been a nine-point win. All's not well that ends well, mind you. Karmically or otherwise.
The choice is Los Angeles. Yes, this was the perfect game for Phoenix, but it can come pretty close to this in Game 4, and pretty close to it again in Game 5 if the bench starts hitting. As it's been all year, this is on Los Angeles.
Do they show a bit of patience, and run that offense? Or do they go for the quick kill, the home run, the easy way out? They can win with the quick kill, swinging for those fences. The team is good enough to pull it off.
But they can really make their lives a lot simpler if they do it the right way. The way they know, more than any other team in this league, that gives them the easiest and quickest way to win.