|Western Conference Finals Game 4|
|Suns 115, Lakers 106|
PHOENIX — The No. 1 goal for any NBA playoff team is to protect home court.
The Lakers grabbed hold of the Western Conference Finals early on in LA by protecting home court with two dominating wins, causing the national media to begin salivating over a potential Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals matchup.
But after besting the Lakers in Game 3, Phoenix is now halfway home in regards to holding down their hardwood at US Airways Center and making this a series. However if the Suns think they will get the same Laker team that showed up in Sunday night, they’re in for a rude awakening.
The Suns made the first major adjustment of the Western Conference Finals by combating the Los Angeles Lakers’ length with a zone defense that kept LA on the perimeter, allowing the Suns to tread water while Amare Stoudemire abused the LA bigs.
But Phil Jackson has been around the block a few times — 10 rings worth — and it would be foolish to think LA won’t be prepared to tear apart every inch of an elementary defense. These are the defending champs. They certainly won’t settle for 32 three-pointers again or put the Suns on the line 42 times.
“I’m pretty sure the Lakers are going to figure out what they need to do to exploit our defense, but we got to stay active,” Stoudemire said. “I guarantee you Phil’s going to come up with something quick.”
There is no question that the Lakers will have at least some form of answer for the Suns zone, but how often will the Suns use the 2-3? Head coach Alvin Gentry joked “we won’t play zone if they don’t throw it to Kobe.” Obviously that’s not going to happen, so the Suns need to decide whether or not to go man to man, a defense that allowed 132.6 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 and 2, or continue to play predominantly zone.
But the biggest problem is, against any intelligent team, a zone can only be effective for so long.
“I think a zone in the NBA, more so than college, you can’t play it consistently for a whole 48 minutes,” said Jared Dudley. “You could play five, 10 clips, it could be frustrating.”
But Pau Gasol had a different take: “If it works, it works. If it gives you a win in Game 3 in the playoffs, play it all day long.
“I wouldn’t be surprise if they play (zone) for a long period of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do play it for 48 minutes, but we’ll see what happens.”
Jason Richardson said Monday that “we hate the zone,” but all of the Suns — J-Rich included — made it clear that they’ll play any defense if it yields wins.
After Monday’s practice the Suns talked a lot about mixing in different defenses to keep the Lakers off balance. It remains to be seen how effective such schemes will be, but if the defense is average, the Suns have a few things working in their favor on the other side of the floor.
All the talk heading into the series was about the Lakers’ twin towers of Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but the Suns’ bigs finally broke out in Game 3. Stoudemire is determined and focused, which usually equals success, and Robin Lopez is not only making his presence felt defensively and on the boards, the seven-footer is also showcasing his offensive skills.
The duo combined for 62 on Sunday night, over half of the Suns’ points, and Gasol said the Lakers need to do a better job rotating on the pick-and-roll if they hope to contain Amare.
“The weak side has got to be a lot more active than it was last night,” he said. “We let him get going real quick and real early in the game with the rolls and slipping the picks. … The weakside’s just got to be there early to take away those rolls and force him to make the pass outside and take jumpers, but don’t let Amare get 10, 20, 30 looks in the paint.”
A huge part of Amare and Lopez’s success hinges upon the production of Bynum, who will play despite some rumors that Jackson would sit him. But he hasn’t been effective in his last five games these playoffs, and he has clearly struggled with the quickness of STAT.
Phoenix needs to continue to attack the hoop, and if they can finally knock down some jumpers — Earth to Channing Frye — to go along with their inside scoring, the Suns could be poised to do accomplish every playoff team’s goal by protecting home court and turning this into a series.