PHOENIX — Kobe Bryant, two seven-foot starters, arguably the league’s best coach (unless you ask), the triangle offense and one of the most versatile players in the NBA coming off the bench.
It is no secret why the Los Angeles Lakers are the reigning champs.
“It’s a huge, huge task for us to beat these guys,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry after Saturday’s practice. “There’s a reason why they’re the world champs right now.”
Whether it’s in the post or on the perimeter, the Lakers have many weapons to choose from offensively, and much like defending the Suns, it becomes a game of pick your poison.
“They have a great system which is based on reads, so understanding when you’re supposed to leave, when you’re supposed to help, when you’re supposed to keep a body on somebody and what we’re trying to give up,” said Suns big man, “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
While the Lakers have a long list of scoring options, there is no question that the offense starts and ends with No. 24. Kobe was cold-blooded in the Lakers’ sweep of the Utah Jazz — 32.0 PPG and 5.8 APG — and he is apparently seeking revenge for past playoff losses to the Suns.
But it is never a matter of stopping Kobe, rather limiting him enough to where he doesn’t kill you with his scoring or play making.
“He’s going to get his points, we just can’t let him go crazy against us,” Gentry said. “Not only is he, in my opinion, the best player, I also think he’s the smartest player from the standpoint of angles and what’s available to him and how he scores.”
Gentry made it clear that the key to guarding Kobe is keeping him off the free-throw line. In his three worst playoff games thus far (24 points, 12 points and 13 points), Kobe shot an average of three free throws per game. In the other seven games, he’s gotten to the charity stripe 10.3 times per game.
Although Gentry hasn’t announced who will start off on Kobe defensively, expectto get the first crack at it, with and in the bullpen for relief.
“We’ll have a ton of guys guarding him,” Gentry said. “I don’t think it comes down to one guy, we’ve got to have good team defense around him.”
When I asked Frye about whether the Suns will try and make Bryant a scorer or a distributor, he said, “I’m going to keep our game plan with Kobe a little secret, I’m going to put that in the pocket.”
While limiting Bryant is obviously Phoenix’s No. 1 focus, dealing with the Lakers’ bigs is a close second. It’s almost impossible to talk about the Lakers without using the word “length.”
Bynum and Gasol are both a load on the block and have the ability to block shots on the other end. Gasol has been huge for LA in the playoffs — 20.2 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 56.4 FG%, 1.9 BPG — and his fine-tuned post game should give Phoenix’s bigs fits.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, 65.9 percent of Gasol’s offensive plays against the Suns in the regular season were post-ups, as opposed to only 40.9 percent against the entire NBA. And from those post-ups against the Suns, Gasol scored 1.148 points per play, compared to only 0.978 against the entire league.
“Pau Gasol, I would say he’s a more offensive-dominant guy on their team,” Channing Frye said. “He’s really developed that left-hand hook. For him you have to meet him early, continue to make him make tough shots over long arms, not put him on the free-throw line and put pressure on him on the other end.”
Bynum, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly the same post-up prowess Gasol does, as he’s most effective off lobs and offensive rebounds. In fact, only 40 percent of Bynum’s offense came of the post-up variety against the Suns (0.917 points per play), while 21.7 percent came thanks to offensive rebounds (1.667 points per play). But it remains to be seen how effective Bynum can be, especially in an up-tempo series with his knee injury getting worse.
The length and size of the Lakers’ front court doesn’t end with the starters, however. In fact, sixth man Lamar Odom may be more important than both Gasol and Bynum in this series. His activity, rebounding and versatility could be exactly what the Lakers need to fend off the Suns.
“Just Lamar’s all-around versatility is great. The standpoint of he can be a two man, three man, four man, five man,” Gentry said. “He rebounds great, he defends. So having him as a bench player, he’s probably the most effective player from a multi-position standpoint that there is in the league.”
“He’s a big factor for them,” Amare added. “He comes in, provides some energy on the offensive boards, so we’ve got to make sure we contain him and keep him off of the boards.”
Aside from rebounding, where Odom’s versatility will hurt the Suns most is defensively. He’s not a lockdown defender by any means, but his athleticism will allow him to get out on Channing Frye’s three-pointers or stay with Amare when he attacks the hoop or even stay with Nash after switching the pick-and-roll.
While Odom is key in defending Suns’ bigs and limiting the pick-and-roll, every great team needs a lockdown perimeter defender. Enter Ron Artest.
As all Suns fans know, J-Rich is more often than not the barometer for the team’s success. But he only averaged 8.8 points on 31 percent shooting and 14.3 percent marksmanship from three against Los Angeles during the regular season. It remains to be seen if Artest will guard Richardson, but if J-Rich gets hot the Lakers have the luxury of blanketing him with Artest.
As a team the Lakers led the league in three-point defense during the regular season (32.8 percent). Their quickness and athleticism have a lot to do with that, but for the NBA’s top three-point shooting team the answer is simple — make shots.
“The bottom line is that when they’re guarding us on the three we’ve got to make shots,” Gentry said.
While the Lakers guards do a great job of defending the perimeter, the L.A. big men, aside from Odom, rarely venture out of the paint. Stoudemire sees their immobility as a huge advantage for the Suns, and he expects to showcase his perimeter game a lot more this series.
“Gasol and Bynum, they don’t want to step out there on the wing, it’s uncharted territory for them,” Stoudemire said. “These guys want to sag back in the paint, they’re uncomfortable playing outside the paint, so we’re going to bring them out a little bit and see if they can guard out there.”
Frye also said that the Lakers are used to sagging off their opposition’s big men because they haven’t played a team with five shooters yet in the playoffs. His ability to spread the floor makes him a hidden X-factor of sorts against the Lakers.
So while the Lakers’ front line should give the Suns some serious trouble at times, their quickness and perimeter shooting may be enough to swing the pace and style of play in favor of Phoenix.
“We’ve got to move, try to space the floor, get penetration, make good decisions, and get in transition as much as we can,” Nash said. “Obviously quickness and skill has got to be a big factor in the series rather than size and strength.”