The difference between being up 3-1 and tied 2-2 is monumental in a 7 game series. For the Lakers, it’s the difference between a sure trip back to Phoenix for game 6 and the prospect of closing out the series on your home court. It’s the difference between a series becoming a best of 3 where anything can happen and the chance to have three contests to earn a single, elimination inducing, victory. It’s the difference between being in control and facing a very uncertain path to advancement. After the Lakers were up 2-0, this series looked well in hand but if the Lakers don’t win tonight they’ll be back to square one and tied up with a team that will have a boatload of confidence for the remainder of this series. For the Lakers, winning this game is tantamount to winning this series. Sure, getting that final, closeout win will be difficult, but the Suns’ hopes would be reduced to a sliver if they fall tonight and that should be the only thing that’s on the minds of the Lakers.
And in order to get the win tonight, the Lakers need to get back to playing smart and focused basketball. We’ve already discussed how settling for the easy play will not work against this Phoenix team, so the Lakers must be willing to outthink and outwork their counterparts to secure the victory. If they do those things, they’ll be fine. If they don’t…you get the point. So, what are the keys to outthinking and outworking the Suns? I’m glad I asked…
First and foremost, the Lakers need to understand that the Suns approach has changed from the first two games of this series. In game 3, Phoenix was much more active and decisive in their offensive sets and the Lakers spent nearly the entire game reacting to what the Suns were doing and not nearly enough dictating. So, the Lakers must get back to setting the terms of how this game is played and that starts on defense.
Against the Suns’ P&R, the Lakers must make Nash hold the ball for that extra second to allow the help defense behind the primary defenders to get into position on a diving Amar’e (and Lopez). The Lakers can accomplish this by fighting harder over the top of screens and having more active hands in the passing lanes when Nash attempts to turn the corner. In the last game, both Fisher and Farmar got caught on the Suns’ screens much more frequently and that gave Nash the “pocket” that he needed to execute the bounce passes that fueled the success of Amar’e and Lopez when they rolled to the hoop. By fighting harder on screens the Lakers will 1). be forced to switch screens far less often 2). make the screen man hold his position, which ultimately disrupts the timing of the P&R action and 3). make Nash go to his 2nd and 3rd options on this play rather than allow him to make the simple (for him, at least) bounce pass to a player on a direct line to hoop.
But, it’s not just in the team defensive schemes where the Lakers need to perform better. Individually, the Lakers must also be less giving in their approach and not allow the easy driving lanes that broke down their interior defense and caused all of the Lakers bigs to get into foul trouble. Both Amar’e and Lopez drove hard into the paint and took it to the bodies of the Lakers bigs, but they were only able to get that far because their defenders didn’t play defense in a way that showed an understanding of what these players like to do. I mean, both Amar’e and Lopez are strong hand dominant players off the dribble. Both almost exclusively to go to their right hand and then make their offensive move based off getting an advantage with that first step. They must also understand what each player likes to do when he drives – Amar’e likes to stay to his right and then use his elite athleticism to elevate and finish while Lopez is much more comfortable going to a counter move where he ends up with his back to the basket so he can execute a little jump hook over either shoulder. The Lakers bigs need to understand these tendencies and respond accordingly. But, they’d be better off if they just denied penetration to these players’ strong hands entirely. So, Pau/’Drew/Odom all need to force these guys to go to their left hand and then contest without fouling. In the last game, the Lakers not only let these guys get to their strong hands, they often reached in when they were beat and committed fouls. More discipline and smarts will be required this evening.
And this concept of playing smarter also applies to the offensive side of the ball. When the 4th quarter of game three started, the Lakers were only down two points. And in that final frame, Pau Gasol shot the ball one time while the Lakers wings unsuccessfully bombed away from behind the three point arc to the tune of two makes in ten tries. And this poor play was only compounded by the Lakers trying to force passes and playing an overall sloppy period where turnovers gave the Suns the extra possessions they would need to create the cushion that could not be overcome. Tonight, the Lakers need to recognize that settling for the easy play is not the answer and work the ball around the court and into the paint to get the types of shots that will break down the Suns defense. For examples of how to do this, they need only watch the game film from the 3rd quarter where the Lakers used the high post flash to great success and were able to create easy baskets by hitting baseline cutters or wide open shooters after the defense collapsed.
The Lakers must also take a page from the Suns game 3 notebook and get aggressive themselves. Besides always looking to penetrate the zone via the pass, the Lakers must also get into the creases of the Suns’ defense off the dribble. Much like the Lakers did in the last two games of the OKC series, using the dribble with the purpose of getting into the gaps and forcing help will go a long way in breaking down the Suns defensive sets. Whether they’re in a man or zone scheme, the Suns can be beaten off the bounce and are susceptible to giving up points in the paint off of dribble penetration just as easily as they are from standard post ups. And when their big men rotate to help, it will leave the Lakers bigs alleys for offensive rebounds or open up the passing lanes for easy dishes that lead to dunks and lay ups. And speaking of the Lakers big men, it’d be nice if the ones not named “Pau Gasol” showed up in this game. Andrew Bynum has already said what he plans to do tonight (hint: it involves attacking), but I’d also like to see Odom come out and be the difference maker he’s capable of being. No one can argue what his effectiveness meant to games 1 & 2, tonight, that level of play (or close to it) would be a welcomed sight.
In the end, tonight is a game of attacking. Whichever team can force the action the most will come out on top. From the Lakers perspective, that means playing with patience and poise, but also with passion and determination. The first two games of this series were not a fluke, but neither was game three. If the Lakers don’t play smart and allow the Suns to dictate the tempo on both ends of the court, the Lakers will have a lot to think about on their flight home tonight. But if they play the way that they showed capable, I think we’ll all be able to live with the results.