PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are in a zone, a zone that has changed the complexion of the Western Conference Finals.
While that statement certainly could refer to their stellar shooting, I am of course talking about the zone defense that has made things a bit uncomfortable for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now it would be remiss of us to think the zone is completely shutting down the Lakers, although it’s doing pretty well. Los Angeles shot just 31.0 percent against the zone in Game 3, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Then in 31 plays against the zone during the first half of Game 4 the Lakers shot 53.6 percent and averaged 106 points per 100 possessions, and in 29 second-half plays they shot 33.3 percent and averaged a measly 76 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
However, for the game the Lakers still scored 119.1 points per 100 possessions. That would be enough for Los Angeles to win on most nights, but there are a few reasons the zone is being widely praised. The first reason is the Suns scored 129.2 points per 100 possessions in this one. And second, it’s much better than the 134.7 and 125.3 figures the Suns yielded in the first two games in Los Angeles.
Jared Dudley said it best: “I’ve come to the realization you’re not going to stop them. You’ve just got to slow them down, slow them down for our offense to take over.”
What the zone is doing is forcing the ball out of the paint and baiting the Lakers into taking perimeter shots. When Kobe was going bananas this defense didn’t seem too effective, but when he ran out of gas in the fourth quarter from carrying his team on his back all game and the Suns forced Los Angeles’ other perimeter players to beat them, that was the ball game.
“Gasol and Bynum aren’t getting easy touches, we’re making Lamar, Artest, Fisher shoot more threes,” Dudley said. “Any time you have the best inside team shooting a lot of threes, it’s an advantage for us.”
The Lakers did indeed chuck up a ton of threes (making just 32.1 percent of their 28 attempts), and all this plays into the Suns’ hands.
When Los Angeles misses a long three, that charges the Suns’ running game. So not only has the zone slowed the Lakers down from their off-the-charts numbers they were putting up in Los Angeles, those extra long misses fuel the Suns.
The zone also made the second quarter feel more like the Three-Point Shootout the way both teams were chucking up long balls left and right. By forcing/baiting them into such shots, the Suns created their tempo and turned this into the kind of game they like to play.
Another reason I like the matchup zone the Suns are playing is because it forces them to play harder and communicate more on defense. Grant Hill spoke of being “paranoid” when playing zone defense and Gentry thinks a team naturally plays harder in a zone. In a zone you are always scrambling, and this chaos seems to have helped the Suns.
“It just takes them out of their rhythm a little bit,” Hill said. “I don’t know. I don’t know why it works, I just know that it does. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes we’re just scrambling.”
The Suns have scrambled their way right back into the series. Nobody is saying that the zone has shut down the Lakers or anything like that, but this was another genius tactical move made by Gentry this postseason to slow Los Angeles down a bit, and if the playoffs were any consideration Gentry would certainly get my vote for Coach of the Year.
The Suns will not stop the Lakers, but by playing this zone they are forcing their style of game and mitigating Los Angeles’ advantage inside. And when Kobe cools off, as he did in the fourth quarter, the Lakers are in trouble.
The question now is if these past two games were a mirage. Will the Suns be any different than the Houston, Denver and Oklahoma City teams the last two years that beat the Lakers in Game 4s to tie the series only to be eliminated in the end?
The Suns still have yet to prove that they can win in Staples Center, but I think they will have a much better road map to such a victory after the past two games in Phoenix.
And as Dudley said, “We just need one.”