Disappointment. Frustration. Anger.
Surely, these are just a few of the emotions that the Lakers and their fans are feeling after losing game 4 to the Suns 115-106. The Western Conference Finals are now a best of three series and the team that was once down 0-2 is now tied and carrying a craters worth of momentum with them back to Los Angeles.
And all credit for this win must go to the Suns. They continued to play their zone defense with good results as the Lakers weren’t able to figure out how to consistently infiltrate the gaps of the Suns’ scheme nor make the necessary shots to make them abandon it. Especially bothered by the Suns defensive alignment was Pau Gasol who never found a rhythm and was not able to crack the code of how the Suns were attacking him when he had the ball. I’ll let Snoopy2006 explain:
I thought the Suns’ defense on Gasol was brilliant. They’re the first team in a long time that’s been able to double Pau effectively and not get killed by his passing skills. The way I saw it, they did it with angles and energy. They swarmed Pau on the catch with 2 or 3 guys. Normally, it’s a recipe for Lakers success. But the activity and angles of the guys swarming him really cut off his vision and bothered him in a way I haven’t seen before. Pau would eventually find the open guy, but because of the intensity of the defenders, his crosscourt pass would be slow and off-target enough to give the Suns time to recover. And they really did an excellent job of doubling and then covering the open man. There was a play in the 2nd half (I believe it was the 4th quarter, not sure) where Fish was open in the corner after Pau caught the ball and drew the attention. The pass was slow enough that Nash – who was doubling Pau on the other side of the paint – had plenty of time to run back and close out on Fish. There’s a reason we’re having difficulty against the zone beyond just Lakers ineptitude. We’re not that horrible. Let’s give the Suns some credit. Whether or not you believe it’s a gimmick defense, they’re executing it well, and their activity and movement across the court is incredible. That defense really took Pau completely out of his game. When he got semi-open jumpers he normally makes, he missed badly. No rhythm at all, and credit the Suns D for that.
Pau finished the evening with one of his lesser games in the past several months, scoring only 15 points and grabbing only 5 rebounds (3 defensive) in 36 minutes of court time. When you consider that Andrew Bynum was able to muster 12 points and 8 rebounds in 11 less minutes, you can see that Pau wasn’t nearly as effective as he’s been recently.
But, this game was more than what the Lakers could and could not do against the Suns zone. What mattered most to the Sun’s success in this game was the performance of their reserves. Before this series started we talked about the advantage the Suns possessed with their second unit and specifically focussed on Channing Frye as an X-factor for Phoenix’s success. And while neither the Suns’ bench nor Frye have had much of an impact in this series up to this point, they made up it tonight. The Suns bench totaled 54 points on the evening and every single reserve that saw time scored at least 7 points and had a double digit plus/minus number. Dragic, Barbosa, Dudley, Amundson, and Frye were the difference in this game as they extended leads, made huge shots, and made multiple hustle plays all evening. I mean when you consider that the Suns bench played more than half the 4th quarter (when the game was close), faced off against the Lakers starters for large stretches and held their own, and essentially broke the game open with a 9-0 run with three consecutive three pointers, this group deserved to be group interviewed after the game by Craig Sager.
But besides the loss, and the fact that the Suns’ bench destroyed the entire Laker team, what leaves me most disappointed about this contest is how a fantastic game from Kobe was essentially all for naught. When the Lakers couldn’t find any offensive rhythm, Kobe stepped up and hit shots. When the Lakers needed a rebound, Kobe went in with the trees and pulled down the carom. After Kobe started drawing double (and sometimes triple) teams, he hit open teammates for easy baskets. Kobe simply did it all and on nights where you get to see one of the best players demonstrate his all around skill and flash his will to win, you’d hope that he has the type of support that can bring home a victory. Instead, Kobe has a stat line of 38 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block, 2 turnovers in 45 minutes and it still isn’t enough.
On a final note, this wouldn’t be a fair recap if I didn’t bring up the elephant in the room – the refereeing. For the second straight game, the Lakers shot less than half the number of free throws that the Suns shot (32 FTA for Phoenix, compared to 13 for the Lakers). And as someone that never likes to complain about the referees, I am a bit conflicted. On the one hand, the Suns zone was very effective at swarming Kobe and Gasol and forcing other Lakers to take shots – shots that were mostly taken from the perimeter. It’s hard to draw fouls when you’re taking jumpers. Plus, Phoenix continued their attacking ways from game 3 and went to the basket frequently with the results being a lot of fouls at the rim – not to mention the fact that the Lakers were reaching a lot on ball handlers, committing fouls that got the Suns into the penalty early in the 2nd and 4th quarters. These factors did conspire to limit the Lakers FT attempts while boosting those of the Suns. That said, I also thought that the Lakers did not get some whistles that I thought they’d earned when they tried to attack the basket or went into to the post. The Suns did get away with some reaching and grabbing that seemed to be a foul at the other end at different times throughout the game. That said, I DO NOT THINK THE REFS COST THE LAKERS THE GAME (sorry, my caps lock broke). In all seriousness, I do see both sides of this, but in the end I think that the Lakers just need to play better and find ways to get more consistent, good looks against one of the most active zone defenses that this team has ever seen.
So here we are. This is pretty familiar territory. The Lakers are tied 2-2 in a playoff series. Just like against OKC from earlier these playoffs. And Houston/Denver from last years playoffs. And if anything should give the Lakers fans and the team it roots for confidence, it’s that fact. The Lakers are very much used to this scenario and have succeeded in it several times over the past two seasons. That said, experience will not be enough. The Lakers need to play better. They need to find a way to attack the Suns’ zone and, even more importantly, they need to find a way to slow a reinvigorated and explosive Suns’ offense. In two consecutive games now the Lakers have given up 115 points or more and that will not get it done. It starts with playing fundamental defense and then securing the defensive rebound (side note – stat of the night: the Lakers gave up 18 offensive rebounds; when a team is shooting well, you can’t give them the extra possessions). Once the defensive board is gathered, the Lakers can go back at the Suns and attack their defense (which will be harder to set up when their transitioning after a missed shot). But, getting stops will be the key. We’ll have more on what adjustments can be made over the next couple of days, but for now just understand that we do have a series on our hands. Both sides are now at two wins and the Lakers have just taken a shot to the gut. But, if there’s any team that can bounce back from this, it’s the one we root for.