Despite what many pundits may think, this series is not over. Yes, Phoenix was overmatched on Monday but unless that first win actually counted as four (here’s a hint – it didn’t) there are still games left to be played. That means there will be new strategies employed and different tactics used by both teams in order to try bring home the win in game two.
As we mentioned in this morning’s links, the Lakers are preparing themselves for different defensive looks from the Suns. Phoenix did little right in trying to contain the Lakers offense so a different approach is surely in order. So, what can we expect from the Suns? As Doug Collins repeated several times in the national telecast of game 1, the Suns are going to try some zone defense. The Suns must understand that the Lakers destroyed the interior of their man to man schemes with determined dribble penetration to the middle and far too easy post entries to Pau Gasol. So, playing a zone is a natural remedy to try and slow down what worked so well in game one. Understand too, that Phoenix isn’t just going to trot out its zone for the first time tonight. They’ve been a very good zone defense team over the course of the season and gave the Lakers fits playing this D in patches in the March match up and also detroying Denver (among others) with their active 2-3 zone earlier this season.
In order to attack this defense I hope that the Lakers don’t vary too much from their game one approach, but I do hope that they add a few wrinkles to their sets. Understand the the Triangle is a natural foil to any zone defense because of the ball and player movement that is built in to the offense. So, if the Lakers are to attack the Suns’ zone, they’ll need to rely on crisp execution of their sets and not fall back on just swinging the ball around the perimeter and settling for the first available open jumpshot.
So, what I hope to see is two fold. First, I’d like for the Lakers to again try to get the ball into the corner so as to initiate their sideline initiation. However, a wrinkle I’d like to see is to have the topside guard (after passing to the corner) not clear through the lane right away and instead hold his position on the strong side in order to keep the Triangle in tact. If the man in the corner makes the post entry, then I’d like to see the topside guard cut hard to the basket with the post passer staying home on the sideline as a release man in case the big man doesn’t have a good shot. This action forces the Suns defense to guard all three strong side Lakers with their three zone defenders and essentially creates one on one matchups with every offensive player. This will enable the Lakers to attack the Suns zone as if they were playing man to man, which as proven in game 1 was not successful. Without the ability to diagram this, visualize this formation: when the ball is in the post he’ll have a defender on his back and the other two Suns defenders on that side will be guarding the two Lakers wings. Those two defenders will either have to stay with the Lakers wings or help down. If the Suns topside guard helps down, the cutting Laker will be open with his dive to the hoop. If the strong side forward digs down off of the player who made the post entry, that player will then be open for a kick out pass. This simple zone offense, but the Lakers will need to show patience to execute it.
The second thing I’d like to see from the Lakers is a continuation of their strong committment to dribble penetration. The key to breaking down a zone is to get the ball into the middle of the floor. Once the ball is the middle, the entire zone collapses and there are going to open offensive players all over the court. Getting the ball into the middle can be done via the pass or off the dribble and I’d like to see the Lakers not be overly dependent on trying to just pass the ball into the paint to either the post up man or a flashing big coming from the weak side. If the Suns allign their defense to take away the corner pass (as they did in game 1), the middle drive will be open. When the ball is penetrated you can expect the weak side defenders to then show help. And this is where I want to see a bit of a wrinkle from the Lakers offense. When the help defender comes the easy pass is going to be to the weakside wing. When that player catches teh ball, rather than settling for the open jumpshot I’d like to see him penetrate the ball as well. This second act of penetration will throw the Suns defense into full scramble mode and their zone principles will be broken down almost entirely. This will open up passes to the big men when interior defenders are forced to help and also open up offensive rebounding lanes from both our bigs and our the player that is in the opposite corner. This form of attack is what the Lakers used to much success in game 5 against OKC. Even though the Thunder weren’t playing a zone, their sagging defense simulated one. So when the Lakers penetrated, kicked, then penetrated again the result was a slew of open layups and offensive rebounds by the Lakers bigs. I hope to see the same results tonight.
The other defensive tactic that we can expect the Suns to employ are hard double teams on Kobe and Pau any time they get the ball 15 feet and in. In game 1 both Kobe and Pau were left free to operate on an island too frequently against players that struggled to guard them and they were way able to create good shots much too easily. By double teaming Kobe and Pau the hope will be to make other Lakers score the ball and thus carry the offensive load. This tactic is nothing new to the Lakers as Utah double teamed Kobe for nearly the entire second round and Pau has seen double teams off and on since the OKC series. In order to beat these schemes the Lakers must be active cutting to the ball and diving to the rim from both the top of the key and from the weakside. When the double team comes the Lakers need to cut behind that doubling defender and occupy the space that the defender is ceding when he comes to attack. This will force an over compensation of the Suns defense where help on the dive man either comes early (which creates easy cross court passes) or comes late (and the flash man is open). Either way, the Lakers have proven in the past double teaming their best passers (Pau and Kobe) will ultimately be ineffective if everyone off the ball is doing their jobs. Tonight, I hope to see those other players focus and make the correct reads.
Offensively, the Suns aren’t likely to make too many adjustments but they do need to find a way to get into the paint more frequently. Stoudemire especially was forced to shoot a lot of jumpshots to get his points and unless Phoenix can get him catches on the move to the basket their offense (while still excellent) will not perform to its peak efficiency. So, expect Amar’e to slip more screens or feint like he’s going to screen only to release early so he can receive passes on the move and ahead of the Lakers rotating defense. This action will allow Amar’e to either make easier catches going to the basket or force rotating Lakers to move off of perimeter players which will then open up passing lanes to shooters behind the arc. In order to counteract this, the Laker must continue to have active hands in the passing lanes and show extreme discipline in their help and recovery so they can both disrupt Amar’e on his cuts and still get back to shooters and contest shots.
As it is with every series, the adjustments begin now. In game 1, the Lakers proved that if nothing changes they’ll win this series handily. So Phoenix must now try to make the necessary changes that turn the tide of the game in their favor. That said, the Lakers have been running the same systems and have seen what Phoenix does for many seasons now. None of these adjustments should be surprises. In order for the Lakers to prevail tonight, it will take an even greater commitment to sniffing out these adjustments and then responding to them with a focussed execution that matches the Suns. If the Lakers are able to accomplish this, they’ll do enough to win the game. However, if they rest on their game 1 win and don’t act out what they’ve covered in practice, Phoenix will be right back in this series and steal the home court advantage from under the Lakers’ noses. As I mentioned earlier, many have already handed this series to the Lakers. With only a 1-0 lead that’s premature. Talk to me about control if the Lakers do what’s needed tonight.