Lakers/Suns Game 3: Amare, Suns Finally Get In The Zone

Phillip Barnett —  May 23, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol scores on Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire in the third quarter during Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals in Phoenix

During the course of the past four days, everyone put in a position to make a criticism about Amare Stoudemire’s in the first two games of this series added their two cents. There was reason for the basketball world to jump on Stoudemire’s case. He was a revolving door on the defensive end of the floor and couldn’t grab a rebound to save his life. In Game 3, Stoudemire proved why the Phoenix Suns were so tough to beat during the second half of the season as he tied his playoff career high in points (42) while grabbing 11 rebounds in the Suns’ 118-109 win over the Lakers.

Stoudemire was aggressive early and often, getting to the free throw line on four of the Suns first nine possessions, keeping both Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom in foul trouble for most of the game. His jump shot was falling, he repeatedly beat Pau Gasol off the dribble and was finishing shots around the rim that weren’t falling in Games 1 and 2. Steve Nash was finally able to find some passing lanes to feed Stoudemire and the like off of those coveted screen and rolls that they used to move past Portland and San Antonio through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Stoudemire’s improved play seemingly opened things up for Robin Lopez who finished with an admirable 20 points, shooting 80 percent from the field, hitting the wide open jumpers he was getting from defenders helping off of Stoudemire and finishing strong around the rim.

The Suns ability to get their S&R going helped them live at the free throw line as they shot 42 free throws, making 37 of them while the Lakers were only 16 for 20 from the line. The Suns were consistent in their attack of the rim while the Lakers sat around the parameter and hoped for three pointers to fall. Many will look at the 22 free throw attempt difference and claim that the officials were unfair in the way that they called Game 3, but as Snoopy2006 pointed out in the Preview and Chat comments, the discrepancy had everything to do with both teams propensity to attack the rim:

Guys, the FT difference was because of the way we played. We didn’t attack the zone, we stayed out on the perimeter and forced jumpers. We weren’t playing 5v8, we were playing some passive 5v5.

In the first half, when Kobe didn’t go to the line? He was taking (and making) all midrange or long jumpers. When he started attacking near the end of the game, he got to the line.

Let’s keep the whining about the refs to a minimum. Sometimes, it’s warranted. But you can’t just look at the FTAs and say “Look! The refs hate us!” We didn’t attack hearly as much as the Suns did. There were a few times when Amare was hit on a FG and I thought he could have gotten an and-1 after watching the replay. The Suns earned those FTs, and we earned our trips to the FT line.

The fact of the matter is that the Suns made a great adjustment on the defensive end of the floor. Moving to their zone in the second quarter really stifled the Lakers offense. The Suns first showed the zone against the Lakers reserves who failed to produce any kind of offense. Phil Jackson brought in Kobe and Gasol but still failed to see the results that he would have liked as the Lakers finished the second quarter with just 15 points. The Lakers looked to be solving the puzzle that the zone presented in the third, but you could tell that they were never really comfortable as a unit attacking the 2-3.

While playing against the Suns man-to-man defense, the Lakers shot 56.6 percent from the field. That shooting percentage dropped to a lowly 31 percent versus the zone. More importantly, their turnovers per 100 possessions rose from 12.7 to 21.4 when the Suns moved from the man to the zone (all stats from ESPN Stats and Information). The Lakers finished with 17 very costly turnovers and the Suns turned those turnovers into 11 points. In Games 1 and 2, the Lakers dominated the turnover battle, in Game 3, their high turnover rate was a huge factor in deciding the game. After a Lamar Odom free throw gave the Lakers a 90-89 lead, the Lakers turned the ball over three times in the next minute and a half, completely swinging the momentum and the Lakers were never within six after that.

What was just as turning the ball over was the number of three pointers that he Lakers took. They took 32 from long range, their most since their first loss of the postseason when they shot 31 in Game 3 against Oklahoma City. Again, those long shots lead to long rebounds, which create transition opportunities for a team that likes to run as much as the Suns do. The Suns had 18 fast break points in Game 3 compared to just 20 in the first two games combined.

Kobe finished with a near triple double, just needing one more rebound to be added to his 36 points and 11 assists. Gasol had a solid 23 and nine and Derek Fisher added an unexpected 18 points, but the Lakers just didn’t get enough from Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Bynum only played eight foul plagued minutes while Odom didn’t really come alive until mid way through the third quarter. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, as expected, didn’t have the same effect off of the bench as they did in the first two games combining for only eight points and four turnovers.

In the end, you just have to credit Alvin Gentry for making the right adjustment and rolling with it, however, I don’t see this working for the remainder of the series. The Suns had to play a near perfect game to pull out a game that was within reach until a few ridiculous turnovers midway through the fourth. Stoudemire is not going to average 40 nor is Robin Lopez going to average 20 for the remainder of this series. The Suns still aren’t getting much from the bench that was supposed to be a major advantage over the Lakers reserves (is Channing Frye going to hit another shot?). I think Phil Jackson will make the right adjustments in the way they attack the Suns zone defense. Game 4 is going to be interesting to say the least. Hopefully there will be a lot less attention being paid to the Celtics and more focus on their current opponents. More respect for the Suns from the Lakers organization is in line after tonight. Game 4 will be on Tuesday at 6 p.m. PST on TNT.

Phillip Barnett