PHOENIX — After another defenseless first quarter in which the Lakers shredded Phoenix’s defense, the Suns had to do something — anything — to switch up the momentum.
So head coach Alvin Gentry dusted off the zone defense that the Suns have used in spots this season to varying degrees of success and despite another explosive Lakers third quarter it made the difference in a 118-109 Phoenix victory.
The zone has confounded the Suns opponents at times this year — think the road Miami game and home March Denver game — and it has been scorched at other times. On this night it forced the Lakers to the perimeter, slowed down Kobe a bit after his 15-point first quarter (he finished with “just” 36) and made the players the Suns wanted taking shots take the shots.
“It just kind of stopped their momentum,” Grant Hill said. “They settled for a lot of threes. It just kind of got us going. We got some stops, got out in transition. It took them out of their rhythm.”
The Lakers shot just 31.0 percent and turned it over roughly once every five plays in 42 plays against the zone. Against man defense they shot 56.6 percent in 63 plays and turned it over a little more than once every 10 plays, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“It’s the difference in them shooting 58 percent as opposed to 48 percent,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, who did not expect to utilize the zone for so long. “We did a really good job in the rotations in the zone, and they still have some shots that didn’t go in that’s been going in the last couple of nights, and that’s what you have to try to make them do, still have to try to have them beat you over the top and not have what they did the last two games.”
The Suns played the 2-3 matchup version of zone that caused Jared Dudley to joke, “We’re like Syracuse out there.”
It certainly looked odd for the Suns to play a zone defense like the one Jim Boeheim popularized, as that’s not the kind of defense that usually wins conference championships (at least not outside the Big East).
But it worked better than anything else the Suns have thrown at the defending champs, as Phoenix limited the Lakers to 107.9 pp100, and that includes the 32-point first quarter against the Suns’ man defense. The Suns had been allowing 132.6 pp100 entering the night, and they rode the zone to a 15-2 first half-ending run that turned a six-point deficit into a seven-point lead. The Suns led most of the rest of the game.
Most importantly, the zone got the ball out of Kobe’s hands and made guys like Ron Artest, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown beat them, but after entering the series 25-of-44 (56.8 percent), they hit just 7-of-23 from the field (30.4 percent). Except for Derek Fisher’s 18 points, nobody helped Kobe and Pau, who went for 23 on 11-for-14 shooting.
“We went zone more, we tried to shut down everybody else and make Kobe beat us, and we slowed down their role players,” Dudley said.
Added Robin Lopez of a Lakers squad that shot 12 more threes than the Suns and hit just 28.1 percent of them, “We really focused on trying to build our defense inside out, try to make them beat us from the outside.”
On the other end, Amare Stoudemire turned in his signature game of the postseason by scoring a career playoff-high-tying 42 points, his first 40-point playoff game since 2005. STAT was a beast from the start, when he earned as many free throw attempts in the first 3:22 (seven) as he did in all of Game 2.
Stoudemire attacked the rim with ferocity, getting Los Angeles’ entire front line in foul trouble (Lamar Odom ended up fouling out) and playing with an intensity missing in Games 1 and 2.
“Well, he had a pretty sensational performance,” Steve Nash said. “I’m just proud of him. He made some incredible plays. But he was just aggressive. And I think once he got a few free throws early and a few buckets, I think he really felt like, ‘Hey, I can keep attacking,’ and all the frustration from the first two games where it was crowded in there a lot I think subsided. … He was obviously a force.”
Added Stoudemire, “Coach Alvin told me before the game he was going to come to me. Come to me a lot. And I was ready.
“I was totally ready. Being aggressive. I wanted to pretty much attack the bigs a little bit and we got them in a little bit of foul trouble, which helped us. We were the aggressor right there, and it showed.”
Although much of the blame for the Suns’ 0-2 hole in the series fell on Stoudemire, it mainly revolved around his defense. He was fine offensively — going 8-for-13 for 23 in Game 1 and 7-for-14 for 18 in Game 2 — just he settled for too many jumpers instead of taking it to the hole.
This time around he took it right at the Lakers from the start, and they really didn’t have an answer for him. Stoudemire exhibited his creativity and explosiveness around the hoop, getting the Lakers’ bigs in foul trouble while getting to the line 18 times and making nifty buckets that a man of his size should not be able to make.
“He wanted the game bad,” Grant Hill said. “You could just tell the last few days in practice, in the locker room, in the weight room.”
Robin Lopez chipped in with a career-playoff-high 20 points. On the other end the Suns limited Lamar Odom to 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting and Andrew Bynum to just two points in 7:31 thanks to the four fouls he accumulated in that time. The Suns sure got “lucky” that Odom didn’t play well, and it’s possible that Bynum will miss Game 4 due to his gimpy knee.
In addition, the Suns committed just seven turnovers and forced the Lakers into 17. They also got to the line 42 times while the Lakers shot just 20 foul shots. Some would argue that this was a case of home cooking, but it’s also fair to point out that the Suns were the more aggressive team in this contest. While Amare barreled through the lane at will, the Suns’ zone largely kept Los Angeles on the perimeter.
As well as Phoenix played on the surface, the Suns went just 5-for-20 from three-point land, a very un-Suns-like performance, and won offensively with Amare and Robin leading the way and Nash, who may or may not have broken his nose, facilitating with 17 points and 15 dimes.
This is finally a series. It officially won’t be a sweep. But the Suns know they still have some work to do to really get back into this series.
“We have to come out with a chip on our shoulder and play Game 4 like we did obviously in Game 3,” Nash said.
The Suns have won 13 of 14 home games dating back to the regular season, including five in a row since the Game 1 loss to Portland. … The Suns have won six straight playoff home games against the Lakers. … Los Angeles’ eight-game playoff win streak was snapped. … The Suns have now won nine games in a postseason for the eighth time in franchise history, ,,, Alvin Gentry became the fourth Suns coach in franchise history to win at least nine playoff games in his first postseason with the team. … Robin Lopez and Derek Fisher picked up double technicals when Lopez’s arm grazed Fisher’s head while Robin was jogging downcourt with his arms raised toward the ceiling during the third quarter. Fisher responded by charging at Lopez. … Nash passed Walter Davis for second on the team’s all-time playoff scoring list. MVSteve has scored 1,294 playoff points as a Sun.