The Phoenix Suns deserve credit for their game 3 win. They made the adjustments that made the difference in the outcome of the game. Their coaches put in the plans and the players executed them to a tee. On offense that meant more attacking. In the Suns’ P&R sets, Nash abandoned the probing style he often uses and instead made quick hitting, pin-point passes to roll men who made aggressive moves after catching the ball in stride. In their other sets, they went to isolation plays for their big men where Amar’e and Lopez attacked our bigs off the dribble in a decisive manner that made helping and rotating difficult (and where, to the Suns’ credit, the shots were knocked down). And on defense, they went to a zone that was effective for long stretches and made scoring the ball just a bit more difficult for the Lakers than it had been in the first two games (which was all the difference the Suns needed considering the high octane nature of their offense).
That said, as much as the Suns deserve credit, the Lakers deserve blame. And loads of it. Not every player that saw game action played poorly, but most did. And while we saw Kobe, Fisher, and Gasol put up wonderful stat lines and display their fierce competitiveness, this team – as a unit – did not play smart basketball and it cost them the chance to win this game.
As Phillip detailed in his excellent recap of the contest, the Lakers committed too many turnovers and didn’t attack the Suns’ zone with a consistent approach that would have broken the defense down. In the 2nd and 4th quarters, the Lakers were all too content to swing the ball around the perimeter and settle for a low percentage long jumpshot that rarely saw the bottom of the net. When the Lakers did try to break down the Suns’ zone with passes into the creases, they went for the home run pass through three defenders that often got deflected and stolen. Again, the Lakers didn’t play smart basketball and it cost them.
Rarely do I rip into the players, but in this instance I was very dissappointed with the approach that they took when the game was on the line and winning was a real option. Instead of continuing to play the style of basketball that led to a 37 point third quarter, the Lakers got lazy in the final frame and did the least amount of work possible while still hoping for the most rewards imaginable. Gone was the incorporation of the high post flash and with cutters moving along the baseline. Gone was the penetrating into the seams of the zone where the defense was forced to collapse and help. Instead, the Lakers settlled for what was easy rather than doing the extra work required to succeed. This is not a winning formula and we saw the results of that as the Lakers saw their 8 game winning streak taken out with the trash.
So now, the Lakers need to make the mental adjustments that will win them the games needed to advance to the Finals. Now is the time for the Lakers to get back to thinking the game for a full 48 minutes rather than relying on their physical advantages to win them games. That means more patience on offense where players move into open space to make themselves available to receive passes (and then the players with the ball, delivering the ball to that open player). It means less settling for jumpers and more attacking the Suns individual defenders within their zone scheme. It means playing fundamentally sound defense against players and knowing the scouting report in order to make players go to their weaknesses. And it means less reaching, hacking, and grabbing that lead to the parade to the FT line that we witnessed in game 3. Without this type of commitment to playing smart basketball, the Lakers will find themselves in another dog fight in the next game (and in every subsequent game too).
Over the course of the last 6 quarters of basketball, I’ve seen a shift in the mentality of the Lakers that I have not liked. Save for the first half of the 4th quarter in game two, the Lakers have morphed from the defensive focussed team that controlled the OKC and Utah series to a team that was more offensive in its mindset and content with outscoring the opponent in front of them. Granted, I understand where that mentality could come from as the Suns have offered little resistance on defense in this series. However, when the going got tough and the Suns zone was showing them looks that were not familiar; where a simple dump down to Gasol or a Kobe isolation play would not work, the Lakers got frustrated and settled. The mental sharpness that won them 8 games in a row was gone. I’m not trying to say that this series is now tilted back in the Suns favor, but if there’s a repeat of the game 3 effort tomorrow night, that idea won’t be far fetched. So, all I ask for is a return of smart, focussed play. A return to the fundamental principles that have gotten this team as far as it has. If those things happen, I’ll live with the results – win or lose. I’m going to leave the last word for Kelly Dwyer, who really summed up the way I feel in a few excellently crafted sentences:
“The choice is Los Angeles. Yes, this was the perfect game for Phoenix, but it can come pretty close to this in Game 4, and pretty close to it again in Game 5 if the bench starts hitting. As it’s been all year, this is on Los Angeles.
Do they show a bit of patience, and run that offense? Or do they go for the quick kill, the home run, the easy way out? They can win with the quick kill, swinging for those fences. The team is good enough to pull it off.
But they can really make their lives a lot simpler if they do it the right way. The way they know, more than any other team in this league, that gives them the easiest and quickest way to win.”