Lakers/Suns Preview: When The Suns Have The Ball

Kurt —  April 20, 2007

We’re starting with the Laker defense because that is the key to their chances in this series — they will score enough, they have all season, but can they slow the high-powered Suns and not let them run off and hide.

The problem with slowing the Suns is that there are no good options, just less bad ones. And to push them into those lesser choices takes a lot of discipline, something the Lakers have shown precious little of this season on defense. To be fair, nobody seems disciplined against the Suns — there’s a reason they shoot a league-best 55.2% (eFG%) and have the league’s best offensive rating of 111.4 (points per 100 possessions).

The Suns like to score two ways — on dunks (or lay-ups) and on threes. If you look at the Suns team Hot Zone shooting chart you see they’re not bad from anywhere, but they are amazing with the corner threes and at the hoop. They don’t shoot worse than 34% from anywhere beyond the arc as a team. The basic key for the Lakers is to turn the Suns into midrange shooters. And if they can force someone other than Nash to create their own shot, all the better.

Everything the Suns do is set up by Steve Nash, whose passing skills in the open court and penetration and dish plays in the half court tear even the best of teams up.

Which leads to rule one for the Lakers — slow the fast break. Part of doing that is obvious, everyone on the court has to get back on defense fast. But the other thing is for Kwame, Odom and the other Laker bigs to crash the offensive boards — bodies forced to box out in the paint are a lot slower to get down court on the break.

But even if you slow the break (as much as is possible), the Suns are a very good half court team. And they love the play that is the nemesis of the Lakers, the pick-and-roll.

They run it with Nash and a host of bigs setting the pick, and it wreaks havoc because Nash is so fast he gets around the pick and into the heart of the defense incredibly quickly. Frankly, most of the time Nash doesn’t even need the pick. But once he’s inside the defense is when things start to unravel for the opposition — someone rotates over to Nash, maybe two guys, and then Nash and his uncanny ability to find the open man gets the ball to someone for a quick dunk inside (because a big rotated over) or out to the three point line.

Kevin from Clipperblog cleverly described what happens when Nash gets in the paint and dishes —it forces other teams to play “whac-a-mole” mole on the perimeter. Once you start scrambling on defense the Suns are in control.

To have success against the Suns in the half court means two things:

Chase guys off the three-point line. As a team the Suns shoot an amazing 40% from three. Every guy on the team can pretty much hit the shot — and on fast breaks they set up out there. Laker defenders need to stay with their men (or rotate quickly) and force Raja Bell and Marion and the rest to put the ball on the floor and come inside the arc to hit shots. They will hit those shots, but they will only count for two.

And they miss a lot more from the midrange than they do on dunks, so there can’t be an unimpeded path from the arc to the hoop. You have to force them to shoot from the midrange. Take Shawn Marion for example, right around the basket he shoots 67%, get him to step back to the 5 to 15 foot range and that falls to 45.7%, get him between 15 feet and the three point line and it’s 26%. The Suns weakness is their midrange game.

The other thing the Lakers have to do is to make Nash the shooter. Which is a little scary because Nash can shoot — he shot 61.3% (eFG%) on the season and 59.5% on jump shots.

But the Suns are best when Amare and Marion and Bell and everyone else is scoring and Nash is setting them up for those easy baskets and open looks. Nash wants to pass. So when he inevitably does get into the lane the Lakers can’t just collapse on him — a lot of times, particularly early the shot clock, he will actually hold on to his dribble, pass up the five footer and come back out (he holds on to his dribble better than any player in the league). That’s good for the Lakers. When he does that it slows the game down some.

Nash is going to run the pick-and-roll a lot — a lot. The Lakers have to have their bigs play this right, hedging out right at the pick to not allow Nash to just drive the lane with a head of steam. They have to either force him back the other direction or at least make a very wide turn toward the basket. Then it’s all about recovery, the guard on Nash has to get back on him fast and the Laker big — particularly the hobbled Kwame Brown — must not let his man run free.

How well the Lakers defend the pick and roll will be a key to this series.

I also think it’s why Sasha Vujacic could play a key role for the Lakers — he has been the Laker who has done the best job on Nash in the last couple years. His length allows him to recover on Nash and disrupt some of his shots, and all that allows other Lakers to stay home on their men more. Farmar also will have his chances to prove himself.

The bottom line — one key reason the Suns are so successful on offense is that what you need to do to defend them is counter intuitive. Players in the flow of the game want to push the tempo, do that and you play into the Suns hands. Then, when Nash or Barbosa drive into the lane, the instinct is for two or three defenders to collapse and try to stop the ball, do that and you pay with a crisp pass and a three. You have to slow the tempo, you have to stay home on your man.

Easier said than done, but it’s the task before the Lakers.