There’s no question that Kobe Bryant kept the Phoenix Suns teetering backward and finally delivered the knockout punch with 26 second-half points (40 total) in tonight’s Western Conference Finals series opener.
But although Kobe had a special night offensively, no Los Angeles Laker changed the complexion of the game more than Lamar Odom.
The Suns looked crisp and energetic in the early going as they jumped out to a 20-15 lead behind two Jason Richardson three-pointers.
Andrew Bynum struggled to defend the pick-and-roll, Amare Stoudemire was knocking down jumpers, J-Rich was on the board early and the Suns were getting open looks from three.
But when Odom stepped foot on the hardwood with 5:31 left in the first quarter all of the Suns’ optimism was squandered.
The do-it-all 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward brought a different energy to Staples Center as he gave LA its first lead of the game by rattling off seven of the Lakers’ next nine points during a two-minute span. Odom carried the Lakers on a 19-6 run to close out the quarter and the Suns never led again.
After Saturday’s practice Suns head coach and Odom’s former coach with the Clippers called the versatile big man “the most effective player from a multi-position standpoint that there is in the league.”
Amare Stoudemire, who grabbed only three boards tonight, also said, “Odom is a big factor for them. He comes in and provides energy on the boards.”
Odom certainly showed why he is such a big factor tonight, with 19 points and 19 boards. But the stats alone don’t tell the whole story, as his athleticism and energy neutralized all of the advantages that the Suns had going into the series.
Channing Frye figured to be a big factor in pulling away the Lakers bigs from the hoop with his shooting. But Phil Jackson stuck Odom on Frye, and it paid dividends as his quick closeouts forced Channing into arguably his worst game of the season — three points, one rebound on 1-of-8 from the field and 1-of-7 from three in 20 minutes.
And it’s not like Frye was the recipient of a few bad bounces, he wasn’t even close and looked like he had no business shooting the ball. His confidence and rhythm were clearly rattled because of Odom’s versatility and athleticism.
But not only did he completely eliminate Frye, Odom also took away the Suns’ main source of offense — the pick-and-roll.
Derek Fisher did a great job fighting through screens and Pau Gasol was also fairly effective defending the play, but it was Odom’s ability to show and retreat, or even stay with Nash if he switched, that took the Suns completely out of rhythm offensively.
The Suns get almost all of their three-point attempts and layups out of the pick-and-roll, and without three-pointers and layups any team becomes significantly worse. While 5-of-22 from distance is flat-out awful, the Suns were even worse after Odom entered the game, as they shot 3-of-18 from the 5:35 mark in the first quarter on.
It wasn’t only his defense on Frye and his ability to defend the pick-and-roll that led to his game-high +24, however.
Odom seemed to grab every loose ball available (seven offensive rebounds) while forcing Amare Stoudemire to come out and defend on the perimeter. There were two occasions in the game when Odom received the ball down low and was blocked twice before ultimately grabbing a third rebound in one play and finishing strong.
He also embarrassed STAT on numerous occasions with his quickness. He blew by Amare from the top of the key on a drive that looked like it was in slow motion. Needless to say, the do-it-all forward lived up to the name and did it all tonight.
He took away Frye’s ability to spread the floor and shoot the three, he took away the pick-and-roll, he controlled the battle of the boards and he made Amare play defense. So what other Suns advantages were there to keep in check?
Odom single-handedly neutralized the Phoenix bench. Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and the Suns bench had a clear advantage in the second-unit department heading into tonight’s game. But Odom’s effectiveness with the Lakers’ second unit turned the battle of the benches from advantage Suns to a virtual wash.
All season long people around the Lakers organization have dubbed Odom the X-factor for this team, and tonight he showed why. When he shows up to play like this he has the ability to swing so many facets of the game into the Lakers’ favor.
He was the main reason for the Lakers’ eight-rebound disparity on the glass (no Sun snared more than six boards), and his 17 points in the paint, along with Gasol’s 10-of-13 shooting, also allowed LA to establish its dominance down low.
So while Kobe Bryant did his thing and exploded for 40 tonight, it was Odom who deserves the true game ball for his game-changing versatility, rebounding and defense.