There are few things as difficult as winning a closeout game on the road against a strong home team. And since this is the exact scenario that the Lakers face this evening, we can only expect this to be the most difficult game of the series. The Suns are facing elimination and they have a dangerous team that plays its best basketball on its home court and are not going to go down easily. In order to win this game, the Lakers are going to have to bring their best effort, their highest level of execution, and an attention to detail worthy of a champion. If they do these things, they’ll be well on their way to a series win. If they don’t, an “anything can happen” game 7 awaits on Memorial Day.
Just like when the Lakers got to game 6 of the OKC series and by the time it was game 4 of the Utah series, the X’s and O’s of this match up are now well established. Yes there are wrinkles that each team can add to their game plans, but in the end it will come down to which team can force the other team into more mistakes while maximizing the strengths of their own group.
For the Suns it will come down to the effectiveness of their P&R and how well they can get the stops that fuel their transition offense. All series the Suns have been at their best when Nash is working his wizardry while running the P&R with Amar’e and Lopez and when they’re able force the Lakers into jump shots that fuel their transition attack where open threes and run outs are easily achieved.
So, from the Lakers perspective, they need to continue to find ways to score against the Suns’ zone defense (or their man to man sets) and make them take the ball out of the hoop so that they then face a set up, half court defense. This means the Lakers must stick to what works against the Suns’ zone by flashing players in and out of the high post and keeping Kobe on the weak side where he can attack the soft spots of the defense with either his jumper or penetration when the ball swings to his side of the floor. The Lakers can also use some of the ball screen actions that help to free up Kobe; the screens that help him create easier looks for himself while also generating the defensive help scenarios that get his teammates open shots. Also, an aggressive and assertive Gasol will go a long way towards victory. If he’s attacking the basket and looking to finish with desire, it will be just what’s needed to establish his presence in the paint (so no flip shots after barely leaving your feet, please).
On defense the Lakers must continue to stick to their defensive principles by marking the Suns shooters in transition and showing the Suns different looks in the half court. I’ve touted Nash’s virtues a lot in this series, but one thing that’s gone unsaid is his ability to adjust to whatever scheme you throw at him. Like the all world quarterback that’s seen a steady diet of cover 2 or the batting champion that’s seen too many inside fastballs followed by the backdoor slider, Nash catches up to what your plan of attack is and then beats it. We saw this in game 5 with the switching on the P&R and in games 3 & 4 with how he responded to the Lakers disrupting his passing angles to the dive man. If the Lakers want to slow down Nash, they must throw the kitchen sink at him and not give him the same look every possession. So, I’d like to see a variety of switches, fighting over screens, going under them, and also some trapping (especially when Nash runs the P&R to the sideline).
Bench play will also be vital in this game. The last time the Suns reserves were on this court they scored 54 points and steamrolled their Laker counter parts while also more than holding their own against the Lakers starters. When this group enters the game, it’s imperative that the Lakers not let them get rolling. So mark Dudley and Frye at the three point line, try to contain Barbosa and Dragic off the dribble, and box out Amundson. We’ll see if Sasha gets another shot in this game but it would be nice if Farmar and Brown made a useful contribution for the first time since game 2. My expectations for this group are now back to “just keep it close” and nothing more. If they can hold a lead or not allow a deficit to balloon, I’ll be more than happy.
The other key to this game is rebounding. In the Lakers three wins they’ve out-rebounded the Suns by 5 or more. Limiting the Suns offensive rebounds, the extra possessions and points that come from them will need to be a focus on every defensive sequence. In the last game, the only Laker starter with less than 5 rebounds was Fisher. It will take a similar team effort on the glass tonight. The guards need to close down the foul line and grab the long rebounds while the bigs and small forwards get into the paint and body up on the Suns.
We’re at the point in the season where nothing is easy. The Suns have already said that they expect to win this game and go back to Los Angeles for game 7. However, if there’s any team that can close a team out on the road it’s the Lakers. In the past two seasons the Lakers have beaten OKC, Utah, Denver, and Orlando (for the title) on the road to win clinching games. They know what it takes and have experience in this exact situation. The opponent may be new, but that just gives them another foe to add to the list. Both teams will come in with confidence, but only one team will leave with the win. Here’s to it being the guys that we root for.
One last note for us fans – enough with the complaints about the officiating. This is one aspect of the game that we nor the players nor the coaches can control. And since that’s the case, there is little point in complaining about it (and that goes for us fans the coaches and the players). I’ll be the first to admit that the refs are far from perfect but I think it’s also clear that the refs miss calls on both ends. The Lakers have not lost games because of the referees just as they haven’t won them because of the men with the whistles. The teams that have played better down the stretch have pulled out the games and won. Again, I’m not advocating for the refs and I think further exploration into how the refereeing can improve is important for the continued progress of the league. But it’s tiring to continue to have this be such a major talking point. The positives stemming from the greatness of the players and caliber of basketball being played far outweighs the negatives from some questionable calls. I truly think we need to get back to appreciating the excellent basketball that’s being played. End of rant. Now, let’s get that win and move on to the Finals.