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.

Kurt

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21 responses to Lakers/Suns Preview: When The Suns Have The Ball

  1. If Mike D’Antoni’s “Penguin” comment about Phil Jackson and his ailing hip, as well as the other low brow insults the enitre Suns organization stated in that “:07 Seconds Or Less” book doesn’t light a fire up the Laker’s collective asses, I may cease to be an NBA fan anymore. This is the stuff that pure, authentic, and nasty rivalries can be made of… Something we have yet to truly see since the Bulls-Pistons and Lakers-Celtics days.

    What surprises me is, it doesn’t say much about the Suns orgranization for allowing this book to be released, despite knowing what they said about the Lakers. Obviously all teams have their opinions about rival teams behind closed doors, but to release it in a tell-all book? Phil is a future hall of famer w/ 9 rings, last I checked Mike D’Antoni only has a wedding ring. Oh and how many championships have the Suns won? I’m still searching… I’m still searching…

    In any case, despite how much I now hate the Suns for releasing this book, I love them for the exact same reason. If the Lakers can use this new found Suns “arrogance” as motivation, and of course stay disciplined and active enough on the defensive end to push this repeat series to another 7 games… we may have the first “real” heated rivalry of our generation. There’s enough “hatred” in the components of these two teams to make this happen… I know without a shadow of a doubt that I now hate the Suns…. and I freakin loved the Suns and the way they play; I respected them. But obviously things change…. for the better.

  2. Very nice preview. I feel sufficiently prepared to watch the game on Sunday!

    Based on how disciplined I’ve seen the Lakers, I want to say they’ll be lucky to win one game. But based on Phil’s history, the Kobe factor, last year’s series, and the fact that I’m a Laker fan before I’m a rational assesor of the NBA, I say the Lakers have a chance!

    As for the Suns’ trash talking, I love it. They have absolutely no right to boast after a desperation Tim Thomas 3 is what saved their postseason. And that’s what makes it good. The Lakers bring their A-game and this is going to be a memorable series.

  3. (1) Phil is a not a future hall of famer anymore, he was inducted this year.

  4. Kurt,

    You infidel. You are directly contradicting a Buss–who was a Laker fan even before his father bought the team. Interviewed for the second time on Loose Cannons, Jimmy opined that the way to beat the Suns is to clog up the middle, stop the slam dunks, and force them to take threes.

    Don’t worry, Kurt, I’m an infidel too!

  5. warren (philippines) April 20, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Make Nash shoot more! He is very good at it but he’s better at finding the open man. He’s deadlier when he’s passing too. Its too risky.

  6. 4. Did he really say that? Must be a diversion

  7. (6) Kurt, Jimmy went into some detail. He said that with Van Gundy as the coach, the Lakers would probably play good team defense–because the team individually and physically has the quickness to play defense. Jimmy feels that a Phil jackson team will never play that kind of tenacious defense. They would play just enough defense to reduce Sun percentages and win. Jimmy felt that Bynum might be a key to the series–both offensively and defensively.

    Rather than relying on my memory while listening to the radio, maybe you could get some sort of tape or outtake.

    The Cannons also interviewed Jordan Farmar–who exzplained his own defensive role as a point guard much as you do in this blog.

  8. The Rising Suns blog has Phoenix winning in 4. I’d have to believe there’s at least a little bit of bias in that prediction.

    “In last season’s matchup, the Lakers pounded the ball inside and used Kobe as a playmaker. The strategy was successful with a little help from blown calls and an attempt from the Lakers to intimidate the small ball Suns.”

  9. warren (philippines) April 21, 2007 at 2:21 am

    Its quite frustrating but I couldn’t imaging LA making it past San Antonio in the 2nd round. They COULD pull up an upset vs. the Suns but with the Spurs, no. Its not gonna be pretty even.

    By the day the KG derby seems bleaker than ever.. I mean, what’s KG thinking? Who the heck knows.
    To be successful, one has to be practical too. That Minny team is in serious disarray. Troy Hudson, Marko Jaric, Bracey Wright, Mike James. They all want out. Wow. Talk about a bad bad bad idea of what sense of loyalty means for KG.

    Next stop, Jermaine O’neal. These stars get caught up in the cliche “I want to stay” stuff. Be Honest. Be Forward. But, be polite, be respectful and be professional. Thats the way to do it. Asking out is like divorce. No one has to get hurt. Take the best deal possible, shop around 4-5 interested teams that they themselves like to make a deal with.

    For instance, Indiana should now be inquiring about the players or contracts they are interested in. If I was Indy, the idea is to rebuild while keeping our heads above water. The Lakers have a very attractive package of Kwame and Bynum. Though many of you might disagree, I still think this is what it takes to get JO without losing Odom.

  10. warren (philippines) April 21, 2007 at 2:30 am

    ey Kurt, no Indy blog site?

  11. Wasn’t Jermaine saying a while back that he wants to quit busting his ass on the low block and he become a spot up jump shooter now??I mean is that the best fit for the Triangle?? And at 19 mill a year too…Thats some pretty expensive brick laying,if you ask me…And wats up with Brevin Knight?? Isn’t he supposed to be a F.A now?? Wonder if v could get him on the cheap??

  12. Dump some chili and cheese
    on Der Weinerschnitzel Bell
    and serve him to the Gorilla
    with a medium soft drink.

    Go Lakerz.

  13. Excellent preview.

    However, although you were right aboput the way the Lakers should play defense, you must remember one thing: you either have what it takes to play defense or you don’t.

    Smush hasn’t… And Farmar still doesn’t have it, but this could be very important for his learning process. So Nash won’t be stopped and we all know it.

    The key matchup will be Odom-Marion. Odom has proved once and again that he can pretty much destroy MArion on both ends of the floor. What about using the weak side of the triangle with Kobe and Odom and just keep pounding?

    This would force a few things:

    a) Odom wearing Marion down (who can run, jump and shoot the 3) and maybe get him into foul trouble.

    b) Raja Bell giving some help to Marion, once they realize that Marion cannot stop Odom, giving Kobe some room to do his thing once the ball comes from the inside.

    c) If the help comes from the weak side, Odom can switch the ball to Walton for some open jump shots.

    This is only theoritical, of course, but I really think that Odom at the low-post should be the focus of our offense against the Suns. And if they switch defense and put Amare on Odom? Well, try making a weak side with Kobe and Kwame/Bynum, and give Marion a pounding on defense.

    PS: Phil, if you read this blog (I hope you do), please take this into consideration… We all want to see the franchise winning, so PLEASE, play Farmar instead of Smush… You want to control the tempo. Play Sasha or even Kobe at point (with Evans at SG) going straight for the weak side with Lamar.

  14. About trades and stuff, let’s just stay focused on the playoffs and wait until we’re knocked out by the Spurs (yep, we know it…) before discussing Jermaine and KG.

  15. (13) Are we sure Walton can hit open jumpers anymore?

  16. As a Laker fan living in the Bay Area, many of my friends are challenging me as to which team will last longer in the playoffs, the Lakers or the Warriors. Sadly, I see Golden State having a more competitive series with Dallas than I see us having with Phoenix.

    Still, you gotta believe. In Phil we trust, and that Kobe guy isn’t bad either.

    Kurt, do you do an end of year awards column? I’d be interested to hear your take.

  17. Bethlem Shoals is previewing all the series over at Deadspin.

    http://deadspin.com/sports/nba/free-darko-playoff-pants-party-suns-vs-lakers-254235.php

    “The message I have for you is clear: Kobe does not matter one bit in this series. Bean Thousand will go for 25, or he will muster 60, and either way the game belongs to Smush and Sasha. The non-Kobe Lakers aren’t just important here — they’re the de facto stars of the series. By the end of it all, we won’t even notice Bryant, and all the crowing will focus on what this means for Lamar Odom’s resume. ”

    No mentiione of Farmar, but it’s a good read.

    Also, if you didn’t see it in the Times, Phil interspersed “Hustle and Flow” into game film for the series.

  18. Hey Kurt,

    Great performance on the Basketball Jones.

    Anyone else read Hollinger’s piece on the all defensive teams? (hint: he actually gives kobe some props)

  19. “At 6’4, he’s bigger than most point guards. Has long arms and active hands, is a big threat to get steals in the passing lanes and on the ball. Can also play fairly good man defense due to his quickness, plays Nash better than quite a few of the other point guards in the league.”
    Is Smush overrated defensively or what?

    But considering that’s coming from a Suns blog, they kiss Smush’s ass as much as they can.

  20. “At 6’4, he’s bigger than most point guards. Has long arms and active hands, is a big threat to get steals in the passing lanes and on the ball. Can also play fairly good man defense due to his quickness, plays Nash better than quite a few of the other point guards in the league.”
    Is Smush overrated defensively or what?

    Considering it’s a suns blog though, they have the right to kiss Smush’s ass as much as they want.

  21. Ian, thanks. I like doing their podcasts, and am slowly getting less sucky at it.