Entering the series, I was most concerned about how the Suns were going to match up against the Lakers’ length inside.
While Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol certainly made their presence felt, an old foe was largely responsible for torching the Suns in Game 1: Kobe Bryant.
As John Hollinger predicted, Kobe was the man who couldn’t be stopped, showing no effects of getting fluid drained from his knee earlier this week by exploding for a 40 spot on 13-for-23 shooting to lead the Lakers to a 128-107 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Kobe — who has now scored 30 in six straight after putting up a 2010 playoff high — had it all working, particularly his jumper. After hitting just 30-of-80 jumpers (37.5 percent) in the first two rounds, Kobe nailed 8-of-14 shots from 16-plus feet, including 4-of-6 in the decisive third quarter when he exploded for 21 points, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Kobe had the focused, “F you” look in his eyes much of the night, saying with his body language that there’s no way in hell the Suns were going to win this game. As porous as the Suns’ defense was in general, even when Bryant was well-defended he seemed to knock down the kind of tough shot that only he can make.
I don’t know if the prior postseason losses to the Suns are really driving him that much or if it’s just that fifth ring, but for whatever reason he was a killer tonight.
“[Kobe] is the best player in the game and he’s gonna get points,” Suns forward Grant Hill told reporters. “I don’t know exactly what we did wrong or right tonight. We just have to look at the tape tomorrow and talk about making some adjustments.”
But it wasn’t just Kobe, as the Lakers as a whole put on an offensive clinic, scoring 134.7 points per 100 possessions on Phoenix’s defense, according to StatSheet.com. For a means of comparison, the Suns yielded 106.9 pp100 during the regular season.
The Suns’ defensive effort looked as bad as that stat would indicate. In fact, I could have sworn I was watching a Mike D’Antoni defensive team.
After the game, Gentry pinned the Lakers’ efficiency on middle drives by perimeter players more than any damage done by Los Angeles’ big guys. Interior penetration was a major issue for the Suns during their 12-18 stretch in the middle of the year, something that Gentry harped on quite often during that part of the year and something that’s been much better of late for the Suns.
Gasol (21 points, 10-for-13) still got his and the Suns really never found an answer for Odom (19, 9-for-15), who picked up right where he left off from his successful 2005-06 and 2006-07 postseasons against Phoenix.
However, the Lakers got very little from Andrew Bynum, who scored four points and collected four rebounds in 19 minutes of action but barely made a dent on the game. You could say Los Angeles didn’t really need Bynum on this night with Odom playing so well, and that is true, but the Lakers almost don’t have a bench if you start counting Lamar as a starter.
The Lakers’ other stars played so well that it didn’t matter that Bynum was a no show, but his potential ineffectiveness is a major development to watch as the series continues, especially considering he said his knee got worse from a week of rest.
On the flip side, Robin Lopez came in and played better than we could have expected, scoring 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting and grabbing a team-high-tying six boards in 24 minutes of action (yes, it’s sad that that was a team high). Lopez was the only Sun to record a positive plus-minus.
Offensively, we got to see what a difference he makes in comparison to Jarron Collins. Collins, bless his heart, is essentially useless when he catches the ball. Lopez is an agile big man who can take a Nash pass on a pick-and-roll and throw one home, as he did a couple times in this game. Lopez even dusted off his mid-range jumper.
Defensively and on the boards he’s one more athletic, big body to throw at the Lakers’ trees and best of all he told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz that he “was surprised at how good I felt out there.”
Lopez’s comeback was the biggest bright spot on this night, and if Lopez wins his matchup with Bynum this series then the complexion of the series changes.
Offensively the Suns were not terrible. They scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions, which is right at their season average, and they knocked down 49.4 percent of their field goals. Those numbers would likely be good enough to win a lot of games when the defense isn’t so soft.
The Suns were really hurt by the fact that they couldn’t hit threes and they couldn’t get out in transition. Phoenix knocked down just 5-of-22 long balls (22.7 percent), three fewer than Los Angeles in five more attempts.
Channing Frye in particular just couldn’t get it going, missing six of seven. I think Channing needs to just keep shooting. Non-Suns fans were freaking out about Frye on the Daily Dime Live chat, but we’ve seen this all year. He’s had a lot of bad games like this, but the Suns tell him to just keep shooting or else it disrupts the rest of the offense.
Oftentimes when Channing misses a few, the next couple shots don’t look as crisp as a normal Channing Frye jump shot. But we’re talking about a guy who went 2-for-15 from deep in Games 2-4 against Portland and then scorched the nets with 3-for-5 shooting in Game 5 and 5-for-6 shooting in Game 2 against San Antonio, a contest he practically won for Phoenix.
The Suns also couldn’t get into transition, failing to make a single transition bucket (0-for-5), according to ESPN Stats & Information, although they did knock down seven foul shots off transition trips.
In all, the Suns weren’t the team that’s steamrolled the league at a 36-9 clip since the end of January. They played a lot of one-on-one defense and were beaten badly (particularly by Kobe), they couldn’t hit threes and they couldn’t get out and run. The Suns just weren’t the Suns.
Now, I understand a lot of this has to do with the opponent, but after jumping out to a 7-0 lead the Suns really didn’t play with that same characteristic spirit the rest of the way.
“It is just one of those games,” Richardson said. “We didn’t really do everything we were supposed to do, but I can’t take a win away from them [Lakers]. They came in and played a great game.”
That they did, and now we get to the statistical significance of this victory. As we all know, a Phil Jackson-led team has never lost a series after winning Game 1. So the Suns should just pack up and call it a season now, right?
As ESPN.com’s Royce Webb mentioned in tonight’s Daily Dime Live chat, before the 2006 Suns-Lakers series, a Jackson-led squad had never lost in the first round (14-0) or in a series in which it had led (44-0).
Although those marks underscore how great of a coach Jackson has been, the stars of this very Suns team dug themselves out of a more insurmountable hole to break a different lengthy Jackson playoff streak only a few short years ago.
In all the Suns should be encouraged by Robin Lopez and the fact that they likely won’t shoot the three ball that poorly again, even against the Lakers’ stingy three-point defense.
So while Game 1 was a certifiable disaster, Lakers fans should not starting thinking about if they’d rather play Orlando or Boston in the Finals just yet.
- It was pretty interesting watching the Suns depart for Los Angeles after practice on Sunday. Airport security officials check them onto the bus so the team doesn’t have to wait in line at the airport like everyone else. Never thought I’d see Steve Nash patted down in the bowels of US Airways Center, but not even the Suns are above airport security.
- So ends the Chipotle charm. Yes, I chowed down on steak tacos tonight, but for the first time in five weekday road games it did not lead to a Suns victory. I suppose I need to switch it up and go with the burrito before Game 2?