Game 3 will be a test for the Lakers.
I understand that Phoenix has looked completely overmatched for the first two games. However, home cooking does wonders for a team and with the third installment of this series slated for the valley of the sun, Phoenix will bring their best effort in order to try and get back into the WCF. They know that a loss today essentially ends their 2010 playoff run and that will be a major motivating factor in them playing their best basketball in order to stay alive.
The one area that we can expect improvement from the Suns is in their bench production. In the first two games, to nearly everyone’s surprise, the Lakers bench has outplayed their counterparts from Phoenix. Odom, Farmar, and Brown have just been plain better than Frye, Barbosa, Dragic, Dudley, and Amundson. However, as the old axiom states, role players play better at home and an uptick in production from the Suns’ reserves is nearly a given. That means that the Lakers’ bench will need to continue their strong play from the first two games and match the drive of the Suns while also bringing a level of execution that can allow them to keep pace with (or better yet, outdistance) the high octane attack of Phoenix’s back ups.
But, this game will be about more than just the respective benches from each team. We’re also likely to see a continuation of the adjustments that Phoenix began in game 2.
First and foremost, that means a defensive strategy that the Suns can lean on to slow the Lakers attack. As we’ve discussed the Suns still have not found reliable options to slow either Kobe or Gasol. However, that does not mean that they won’t continue to try. To that end, I think we’ll see the Suns try to single cover Kobe and double team Gasol as much as possible. From Phoenix’s perspective, Kobe’s game 1 can be looked at as a bit of a fluke. He made an obscenely high rate of his outside jumpers and did so against solid defense from Hill and Dudley. From my perspective, a lot of the shots that Kobe made in that first game you can live with him taking (you just have to hope he doesn’t make as many). What the Suns can’t live with is Kobe controlling the game with his play making as he did in game two. If’ Kobe is allowed to score 20+ points while racking up double digit assists the Suns are sure to lose. Today I expect to see the Suns make Kobe go for 40 points and carry the offensive load. If he can do it, good on him, but he’s going to have to prove it today.
As for Gasol, I think double teaming him in a variety of ways is the only way that the Suns can slow him down. While fronting the post or denying passes with the half-front are decent techniques, Pau is simply killing Phoenix whenever he makes the catch. At this point, I they’ll need to try and force Pau to be less a factor by taking the ball out of his hands. Remember, Pau is almost too unselfish in that he’s always looking for the right play. When being single covered by players that can’t guard him (Amar’e and Frye), Pau’s best option is too attack those players and get his buckets. However, if the double team comes he will not force the action and will make the correct pass to the open player. If you’re the Suns, making Pau a passer and players like Fisher and Artest scorers is still your best option. So, from a Lakers’ perspective, today is a day where we’ll need the complimentary scorers to make shots in order to disrupt the best laid plans of the Suns.
On defense, the Lakers must continue to do what they’ve been doing in the first two games in order to disrupt the Suns P&R. In game 2, the Suns made a subtle adjustment early in the game where they ran much more of their P&R’s to the sideline in order to free Nash up along the baseline. This led to early buckets by both Lopez and Amar’e as the Lakers bigs were caught in the middle of no man’s land between helping on Nash and recovering to their own man. I expect to see the Suns run more of this action rather than the standard P&R that is run to the middle of the floor. In order to slow down this action, the Lakers must collapse harder from the top (to crowd the paint and disrupt interior passes) while also blitzing Nash with the length of our bigs to cut down his passing angles to the perimeter while also making it more difficult for him to take his own shot.
The other wrinkle the Lakers must be prepared for is the Suns’ small lineup with Dudley playing PF. The Suns made their only sustained run of the game with this undersized group as they were able to successfully space the floor and open up driving lanes off their P&R sets. These open lanes collapsed the Lakers defense and made it so Richardson, Hill, and Dudley got open shots that they knocked down. When the Suns go to this line up tonight, all I hope to see is a greater effort from the Lakers defense to recover to shooters and contest shots. Most of the Suns’ made baskets came with no Laker within 3 steps of the offensive player and those guys are too good of shooters to leave that open. So, if the Lakers can recover and chase the Suns’ shooters off of their spot and make them dribble before they shoot I’ll be happy. All I’m looking for is a disruption of rhythm.
In the past, the Lakers have not been the best performers in game 3’s. They seemingly got over that hump by winning the third game of the Jazz series, but that game was a one point victory where the Lakers dodged two bullets at the end to secure the win. Against an offensive team as capable as the Suns, it’s tough to imagine the Lakers being that lucky if a similar situation arises. That means the Lakers must be ready to bring a level of execution and focus that they have only had to show sparingly in the first two games (the first 4 minutes of game 2’s 4th quarter, for example). If the Lakers can bring that quality of play, I like their chances tonight and moving forward in this series (and beyond). And speaking of beyond, I understand the want to look ahead. Boston is now up 3-0 and look to be the East representative in the Finals. That said, the task at hand for the Lakers is the Phoenix Suns. So, like a good point guard, it’s good that the Lakers can see the entire floor and understand where all the pieces lie. But the immediate concern is not the player in your peripheral vision, it’s the one that is standing right in front of you. Beat that player and you’ve got a lay up. Pay too much attention to the player that is coming from the side and you pick up an offensive foul. Keep your eyes on the guy at the rim fellas and the rest will take care of itself.