So much for rust.
After both the Lakers and the Suns had a week off, one would have thought that maybe the offenses would have suffered. That maybe it would take some time for both teams for find their rhythm. That both teams might struggle to make some shots. Uhh, not so much. This game was an offensive duel and the Lakers were able to put the ball in the basket in a way that they haven’t all post season and took out the Suns 128-107 to take a one game to nil series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
And since the game was all about offense, you would have thought that the Suns would have the upper hand. After all, they are the team with the top ranked offense; the team with the nearly unguardable P&R; the team that has the all world point guard, the hammer of a PF, and shooters flanking them on all sides. And while Nash, Amar’e, and Richardson had good games, the story on offense wasn’t about those players.
The story on offense was how the Lakers played. The story was the effectiveness of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (and Lamar Odom off the bench – but more on him in a bit). Much like game 4 of the Utah series, Kobe and Pau combined for big numbers and paced the Lakers on offense the entire evening. On the night the Lakers had an offensive efficiency of 137.8 and if that number doesn’t astound you, I don’t know what will.
Leading up to this game, the big story was how Kobe’s knee was acting up again and that in recent days he had to have it drained of fluid. Well, tonight you couldn’t tell there was a problem at all as Kobe went wild with 40 points on only 23 shots. He made 11 of his 12 free throw attempts and half of his 6 three pointers. The man was simply on fire and regardless of what Sun tried to defend him, Kobe picked his pots, found his range on his jumper and could not be stopped. Kobe truly exploded in the third quarter by scoring 21 points in the period and was the catalyst behind the Lakers run that created the gap that the Suns would not be able to overcome for the rest of the evening. And just to show that he wasn’t just all about scoring the ball, he chipped in 5 rebounds and 5 assists for good measure. After the game Phil talked about how even though Kobe wasn’t practicing in the week between the end of the Jazz series and the beginning of the WCF, Kobe was still getting in all of his shooting practice and was getting his mental reps on how to attack the Suns. I think it’s safe to say that, tonight, it showed.
And then there was Gasol. For months now, Pau has been playing tremendous basketball and tonight was no exception. Pau made 10 of his 13 shot attempts, scoring 21 points in a myriad of ways – all of them looking easier than what they actually were. Whether he was beating the shot clock by sinking a contested jumper or gathering in a lob and then shooting a pretty turnaround jumper while falling on his back, Pau was supreme on offense. He always looked in control and seemed especially determined to attack when he got the ball in his hands. His favorite player to battle against was Channing Frye as Pau went to work on the Suns sharp shooting big man and attacked him relentlessly whenever they were matched up. Much like Shaq used to do in playoff series past, it looked like Pau understood the best way to slow down the offense of the Suns’ key reserve was to make him work on defense and Pau succeeded by going at him all night (Frye only shot 1-7 from three and missed his only 2 point attempt as well).
But while Kobe got 40 and Pau only missed three times, the true big time performance came from Odom. After the game LO said that he’d had a tough first two rounds of the playoffs but that during the break he had a chance to work on his individual offensive game and that tonight he was going to be aggressive and not let the game come to him. Well, his post game summary is exactly what we saw as our lanky lefty was active from the moment he got on the court – instantly making things happen on offense by making a short shot from in the paint and then a three pointer within 90 seconds of checking in half way through the first period. All night Odom attacked off the dribble, leaving the Suns bigs trailing him as he extended his long left arm for easy shot after easy shot. He totaled 15 points in the first half, got 19 for the game and for good measure grabbed a team high 19 rebounds as well (including 7 offensive). If Odom can perform even close to as well as he did tonight in the rest of the games of this series, the Suns are truly going to struggle to defend the Lakers.
But even though this game was all about offense from both sides (Phoenix also did well for itself with a 113.8 off. rating) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Lakers did do some good things on defense tonight. Even though Amar’e made 8 of his 13 shots and scored 23 points, more than half his makes came from outside the paint on jumpers. Plus, on the evening the Suns only shot 5-22 (22.7%) from behind the arc and recorded only 4 fast break points. And then on the Suns P&R, the Lakers guards (especially Fisher) fought through screens and rode Nash away from his sweet spots while every Laker defender had active hands in the passing lanes forcing bad passes and causing deflections when the Suns tried to thread the needle to cutters and spot up players on the wing. Granted the Suns still scored the ball well and shot a good percentage from the floor, but the Lakers disrupted their sets more frequently than any opponent has so far these playoffs. And while the Suns will surely look to make adjustments, it was good to see the Lakers execute their defensive plan and make the Suns miss from deep and while also forcing them to rely on a lot of long made two point jumpers to sustain their offense.
So for the third time in three post season series the Lakers take a 1-0 lead. And they now get to see if they can extend Phil Jackson’s streak of 46 straight series wins (with zero losses) when winning the first game. Surely, the future games will be more difficult but in this game the Lakers again showed that their combination of length, agility, and skill are a tough combination to overcome. Phoenix will definitely need to find a way to crack the code of the Lakers’ long arms and quick feet if they’re to win game two. And the Lakers are going to need to be ready for cleaner offensive sets from the Suns and subtle tweaks to their offense to get their players the looks that they want. That said, if the Suns don’t find a way to slow down Kobe and Pau while also containing a suddenly alive Odom, none of it may matter.