The Suns are known as an offensive team. Over the course of the regular season, they had the top ranked offense measured by both points per game (110.2) and in offensive efficiency (112.7). Said in the simplest way possible, they are a juggernaut on that side of the ball. However, after throwing the Spurs to the side in a 4 game sweep what’s been getting the Suns a lot of ink lately is their improved defense. The Suns may not be the most athletic group and they may not possess the most size, but they’re playing disciplined on that side of the ball and are using their smarts to rotate well, contest shots, and then rebound the ball. And since the Suns have been showing that they are a capable and somewhat improved defensive team, I thought it would be best to start our series preview with what the Lakers need to do when they have the ball vs. the Suns defense.
When looking at the Lakers offense against any opposing defense, there will always be two questions that need to be examined closely: 1). Does the opposition have a player to guard Kobe? and 2). Does the opposition have enough size to defend the Lakers’ big men? Against OKC and Utah, how the answers to these questions played themselves out on the court were a major factor in the difference between a 6 game slugfest and a 4 game sweep. In this case, when looking at the Suns, I think it’s fair to say that the Suns have decent options in answering both questions but none that should inherently scare the Lakers. The odds are that the Suns will deploy either Grant Hill or Jason Richardson on Kobe and then play the Lakers bigs straight up with Amar’e (on Gasol) and (a returning healthy) Robin Lopez on Bynum. As I mentioned, these options are good but not in the caliber of some of the better defensive players in the league at their respective positions. Meaning, the Lakers should be able to score on the Suns defense if they play to their strengths.
First and foremost, that means getting the ball into the post. Both Pau and Andrew will have distinct size advantages inside. Much like in the Utah series, the Suns front line is a bit undersized compared to the Lakers’ twin 7 footers (though Amar’e/Lopez are more athletic than Boozer/Fesenko). So, the Lakers will need to work the ball inside and use their big men as the offensive initiators from the low post. As we’ve seen throughout this season, the Triangle offense is at its best when the ball goes into the post where our bigs can create offense for themselves and others.
However, going into the post doesn’t only mean attacking with our bigs. As we’ve seen over the course of this season (and was put on even greater display against the Jazz), that Kobe Bryant guy is also a pretty skilled post player. So going at either Richardson or Hill on the low block should also be a priority on offense. If Kobe has proven anything over his recent run of 30+ point scoring games, it’s that he’s still very much wanting to get his shots close to the hoop and his work from the weak side pinch post has been a devastating weapon in fueling his offensive success. When Kobe makes his catch at the elbow against any defender he just has too many options and his game is too versatile to completely stop, so making the Suns choose between single covering him down there or sending the double team is just another way for the Lakers to exploit the Suns D.
But the Lakers’ advantage in size isn’t only limited to taking the ball into the post. As Zephid points out, another way to beat the Suns on the interior is to go after the offensive rebound after the shot goes up:
One statistical area that the Lakers can exploit is the Suns porous defensive rebounding. The Suns are the 2nd worst defensive rebounding team in the league with a defensive rebound rate of 70.8. Only the Warriors are worse, and the Lakers are 9th at 74.4. However, the Suns are comparable to the Lakers in offensive rebounding, 27.7 for the Lakers and 27.6 for the Suns. Thus, it is key for us to get offensive rebounds and tip ins, mostly for the points, but also because this will prevent the Suns from getting out in transition for easy scores.
As was the case against Utah, the Lakers must use their advantage inside in as many ways as possible. I’d love to see the Lakers play volley ball on the offensive glass against Amar’e and co. And this shouldn’t only be limited to when Bynum and Gasol share the court. Odom is a very good offensive rebounder and since he’ll likely be in the game marking Frye (more on that match up later in the week), LO should use his quickness and athleticism advantages against Channing to snare the Lakers some extra possessions.
Lastly, the Lakers just need to attack. Sure, going with a Kobe/Gasol centric offense is always a good bet, but the Lakers mustn’t get too focused on only going at the specific defenders that are guarding those two guys. As Kwame A. noted in a recent email exchange the Lakers must also:
Make Nash, J-Rich and Amar’e defend: When they are in man-to-man, we must make these guys exert effort. With Nash, this may mean posting him up, with J-Rich and Amar’e, we need to also work them on the block, and try to get them in foul trouble. This will fall mostly on Artest, Pau and LO.
Recently, the Lakers have been much more committed to executing their base offense. Yes, Kobe and Pau have been featured within the offensive sets, but we’ve also seen much better cutting and screening off the ball and greatly improved ball movement in the half court. So, if the Lakers can continue in these efforts they’ll be able to effectively go at Nash and Richardson (if they’re on Fish/Artest) by moving without the ball, sliding into open space, and cutting the basket on dives and hand offs to get these other guys on their heels. The Lakers can also use some of the finer intricacies within the Triangle to get favorable match ups on these players. For example, we could see more guard on guard screens where Fisher sets a screen on Kobe’s defender that can ultimately either give Kobe some free space or force the switch where Nash (or Dragic) ends up on Kobe. We could also see more of the scissor cuts from the sideline initiation where after the ball goes into the post, the top side guard (Kobe for example) screens the defender on the corner man (Artest) to get Ron free to either get an open jumpshot or a handoff and drive to the basket against a switching or screened off defender.
In the end, the Lakers offense will be the stiffest test the “improved” Suns defense will face. The Lakers have diverse threats on both the inside and on the perimeter and have two of the hotter offensive players still alive in post season (Kobe and Pau). Mind you, the Suns can still throw defensive wrinkles at the Lakers by going zone like they did with good success earlier this year, by fronting the post (ala OKC), or by double teaming in non traditional ways. However, with the talent level and offensive schemes the Lakers have in place, there should be counters to all of these tactics. Will the Suns be able to slow the Lakers attack? This will be very important to their success in this series because as we’ll cover in future parts of our series preview, the Suns won’t be able to simply outscore the Lakers.