Game day is fianlly upon us. If we had to wait any longer I would have started linking to YouTube videos of Justin Bieber. I don’t think anyone wants that.
Since we’ve covered this series from a variety of angles already, there really isn’t too much else to say besides it’s time for the Lakers to play their best ball and see where that gets them. However, since this is a game preview I thought I’d share a few other X’s and O’s on the Suns and some other things I’ll be looking for tonight:
*Injuries are a topic of interest, but I don’t think they matter at this point. Yes Bynum’s knee is bothering him, but that is nothing new. Yes Kobe’s knee was drained, but I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t the first time that has happened this year. The Lakers are just going to have to deal with whatever limitations injuries are imposing on their players and move on. This is why depth is important and this is why coaches put in schemes to help counteract those limitations. There will be games where the players are not 100% and it’s on those nights where adjustments must be made. I expect the coaches will respond accordingly tonight and react with a pre-established plan to whatever scenario plays itself out. Basically, no excuses.
*Besides playing circa 2008 Boston Celtics level defense, there are no defensive schemes created to defend an on his game Kobe and firing on all cylanders Gasol. And I think it’s fair to say that Phoenix doesn’t play that caliber defense. But, what Phoenix can do is throw in defensive wrinkles to try and disrupt the Lakers offensive sets. Look for the Suns to front the post, deny passes to wing, blitz ball handlers, and play some zone defense. The Lakers have had a week off so I’m hoping that none of these strategies are too effective, but we’ll get to see tonight. From my perspective, the Lakers must focus on doing the little things in their offense to counteract these types of maneuvers. So, I’ll be looking for good, hard screens off the ball, crisp passing, and the ball moving to the corner to make entry passes more flat and easier to execute. Against the zone, I hope to see the Lakers execute from the strong side so that the Suns defenders must play in man principles within their zone. When the ball is on the weakside, three Suns can guard two Lakers and that numbers advantage will limit post entries and cut off driving lanes. But in the end, what I’m looking for is attacking basketball. Make Phoenix prove that they’re a better defensive team. Make them guard the entire court by being perfect in their rotations. And then make them prove that they can defensive rebound as a team by crashing the offensive boards hard. I’ve been saying that the Suns look to be improved on the defensive end, but tonight I’m actually looking for proof of that against the Lakers.
*We’ve talked a lot about the Suns’ offense but there are two things that we have yet to really discuss. First is the “Steve Nash treatment” and deploying it on the player whose name it carries. Several years ago, Kurt coined this phrase to describe the defensive scheme where Nash is made into a scorer by staying home on the Suns’ shooters in a way that invites Nash to shoot the ball more than he normally would. I expect to see the Lakers employ this scheme tonight because if Nash is getting double digit assists while still scoring 18+ points, the Suns are tough to beat. However, if Nash is scoring in the high 20′s to low 30′s but his assist numbers are low the Suns offensive machine will sputter and not find its rhythm. This is a long used technique from the Lakers and I think we’ll see it tonight. For the second point I’ll let commenter Franky explain something he saw when looking at the Suns’ P&R:
In watching the Kevin Arnovitz video and others with regards to the Suns P&R, there’s one thing that sticks out to me. If you watch the clips you’ll notice it also. When Amar’e is the screener, he will almost never touch the man he is supposed to be screening. In the situations where he rolls to the hoop (he does this most of the time, as opposed to hang and pop), he’ll begin to roll before the opposing guard even passes him. The Spurs let him get in to the lane for a Nash pass way too easily.
If the Lakers decide to play strong on the ball when the screen comes, they can run right through most of them since they are weak screens at best. This will force Amar’e to stay home and actually set the pick with the guard running into him. This will ultimately slow his roll to the basket. Of course this easier said then done, and Nash will adjust to any way you try to defend him. But by making things a little more difficult on Amare, I think it will slow down probably their most potent offensive weapon.
I agree with what Franky’s saying and it will be interesting to see if the Lakers take this approach when defending the Suns’ P&R. If we look back to the Finals vs. Orlando, the Lakers did an excellent job of fighing through screens and making Howard hold his ground when setting picks. This slowed down his roll to the rim and allowed the defense to rotate to the paint in anticipation of of the dive. If the Lakers can successfully bottle up Amar’e and make him less effective on his dive this will make Nash go to option number 2. Mind you, Nash is more than willing to go to that option, but at that point it will be on the Lakers to rotate to shooters or to reset their defense in anticipation of another P&R. If the Lakers can take this approach and make it work, the Suns will be working deep into the clock against the best defensive team that they’ve faced this entire post season. In those scenarios, I think the Lakers have a good chances of securing stops.
*Speaking of Amar’e, he loves to get the ball at the left elbow and drive hard to his right hand and then explode to try and finish at the rim. So, I’d love for the Lakers to force STAT to his left hand, be aware of his reverse pivot back to his right hand, and make him finish over extended arms. If he doesn’t make his initial shot also understand that his ability to quickly execute a second jump for the offensive rebound is a strong suit and is something the Lakers need to be cognizant of and box him out after challenging that first shot. It will also be imperative that the Lakers gang rebound on their defensive glass because Phoenix is a good offensive rebounding team on both interior shots (because of Amar’e) and on long rebounds from their missed three point attempts. So, not only must the Lakers collapse the paint with their bigs to go after the ball, the Lakers guards/wings must also close down the FT line to gobble up those long boards off missed jumpers.
In the end, the Lakers won the regular season series against this team for a reason – the Lakers are the better team. That said, this Suns team is on a roll right now and their confidence is sky high. Guys like Frye, Richardson, Hill, and Dudley are playing better all around games than at any point during the season. To beat this team tonight (and in this series) the regular season effort will not be enough. That said, if any team understands that point, it will be these Lakers. These Lakers have been to two straight NBA Finals and are the defending champions of the league. These Lakers are led by the best coach of his generation and a surly superstar that can taste a 5th championship. Based off all the evidence that I’ve seen from this team over the past several seasons, the Suns will not be taken lightly. So to all us fans, just enjoy the ride that begins tonight. The WCF are finally here, it’s time for the games to take center stage.