Breaking down the Phoenix Suns' late-game struggles against the Los Angeles Lakers

After the Phoenix Suns collapsed against the Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch of Tuesday night’s contest, I wanted to rewatch those final six minutes and see where the Suns went wrong.

I looked at every possession, both offensively and defensively, to get a better look at what led to Phoenix’s demise. Here’s a play-by-play breakdown of how the Suns wilted under pressure in Staples Center and why that was the case:

Lakers lead 83-82 with the ball and 6:12 remaining

With the Suns scoring on three straight possessions to bring the Laker lead to one, they had a chance to get a stop and take the lead on the other end. But as seen above, Kobe uses his smarts to get Grant Hill in the air and draw the shooting foul that led to two free throws. Chalk this up as a veteran making a smart play even after Hill played solid defense until that point.

Suns trail 85-82 with the ball and 5:57 left

Here the Lakers do a terrific job getting the ball out of Nash’s hands in the pick and roll. They force him almost 30 feet from the hoop and the offense eventually breaks down, with Nash having to swing it to Hill in hopes that the 39-year-old can make a play.

This is the one moment where the Suns struggle most as they don’t have anyone to go create his own shot. Hill ends up losing the ball before regaining it and missing a fading jumper. Marcin Gortat grabs the offensive rebound and kicks it to Nash, but Shannon Brown jacks up a 28-footer with 21 seconds still on the shot clock.

Phoenix can’t settle for shots like that, especially with such an erratic shooter like Brown. This possession was a huge missed opportunity and a product of a missing go-to-guy and unintelligent play by Brown.

Lakers lead 85-82 with 5:25 remaining and the ball

This is inexcusable defense by Hill and Gortat. Gasol sets a back screen for Kobe and Gortat and Hill fail to communicate, as Hill tries to go high-side on the screen while Gortat simply watches. Gortat needed to disrupt Kobe’s rhythm or help out, and Hill also needed to be more aware, but instead the Lakers pushed their lead to five.

Suns trail 87-82 with the ball and 5:09 left

Here Nash has a great look at a three to cut the deficit to two. He drills this shot probably seven times out of 10 but hits the back iron here. No problems with offensive flow there, just a missed shot that should have been made.

Lakers lead 87-82 with the ball and 4:56 remaining

This is actually a solid defensive possession from the Suns. Hill does a great job running Kobe off of screens and denying the ball, Gasol just buries a clutch jumper. If you’re the Suns, you have to be happy with Gasol shooting a deep two with 16 seconds on the shot clock on a night when Kobe is unstoppable. Good defensive possession left unrewarded.

Suns trail 89-82 with the ball and 4:40 left 

The Suns do a decent job moving the ball on this possession, but it gets them nowhere. Nash should have waited longer to hit Gortat on the roll at the beginning of the possession and then Hill delivers a bad pass to Frye, that if it was on point, could have resulted in an open three.

Instead the Suns had to pull it back out and reset. Rather than setting the high screen with Gortat, Frye sets the pick and pops out, while Nash can’t shake Steve Blake and the possession ends with a Gortat 19-footer that barely grazes the rim. Again, the Suns had no one to create his own offense when the play broke down and it ended in an absolutely awful possession at a critical time.

Lakers lead 89-82 with the ball and 4:17 remaining

This may have been the Suns’ worst defensive possession of the game. Sure, Kobe simply beats Hill baseline, which will happen from time to time. But if you look closely, Gortat is completely out of position. His man is four passes away, but for some reason he felt the need to leave help position and stay close to Luke Walton, yes Luke Walton. Absolutely atrocious team defense.

Suns trail 91-82 with the ball and 3:56 left

This play exemplifies where Gortat needs to work on his game and Phoenix needs to change its philosophies. Gasol plays the pick and roll aggressively and pressures Nash, who dumps it off to an open Gortat about 15 feet from the hoop.

All Gortat has to beat is a rotating Matt Barnes. Here’s where Amare was so valuable. He’d put the ball on the floor and make the defender pay, or get to the hoop and finish with contact.

Gortat can’t exactly put the ball on the floor, and rather than settle for a mid-range jumper, he hits Hill in the corner and the veteran bricks a triple. The Suns need to find a way to turn Gortat’s opportunity into two points rather than relying on a three from a player who’s 1-for-14 on the year.

Lakers lead 91-82 with 3:36 left and the ball

This is vintage Suns, playing great defense for 24 seconds and then giving up an offensive rebound, to Walton of all people. Neither Jared Dudley, Channing Frye or Gortat put a body on Walton, who grabbed the board and kicked it out to Barnes, who found a wide open Kobe for the reverse dunk. Giving up an offensive rebound is the most deflating play in basketball, especially for a team desperate to find rhythm offensively.

Suns trail 93-82 with 3:03 left and the ball

Hill makes a great individual play by crossing over and getting to the hoop but instead of going up with the ball on the front side, he tries to go reverse and misses a wide open layup. It was that kind of a night for Hill. Just when it looked like the Suns found someone who could make a play, he botched the layup.

Lakers lead 93-82 with the ball and 2:49 left

This is what the Suns should have been doing minutes earlier. With Kobe isolating against Hill, the Suns ran Jared Dudley at Kobe with the shot clock winding down, forcing Bryant to drive baseline.

Frye rotates over along the baseline and forces Kobe to give it up to Gasol with too little time on the shot clock for the Spaniard to make a play. If the Suns employed that strategy with six minutes to go, it may have been a different ball game.

Suns trail 93-82 with the ball and 2:19 left

This is another example of Gortat not being aggressive enough with the ball. Nash finds him barreling down the lane and Barnes steps over to help. Gortat could have easily gone hard to the hoop, tried to avoid Barnes and either head to the line for two or finish plus the foul.

Instead Gortat kicks it to Hill in the corner, who makes the right play by attacking Gasol’s poor closeout and getting to the line, where he hit 1-of-2. Smart play by Hill, but it should have been at least two for Gortat.

Lakers lead 93-83 with the ball and 2:10 left

The Suns allow Kobe to get exactly where he wants — the right elbow — for a routine (for Kobe) turnaround jumper. While most pros won’t make that look so easy, Kobe’s the best mid-range jump shooter in the game, especially with his back to the basket. Poor defense and recognition by the Suns.

The final two minutes were much of the same for the Suns. Kobe hit another jumper, the Suns allowed another offensive rebound, and Frye and Dudley each hoisted triples to no avail.

Final Take

The biggest problems I have with the Suns’ offensive execution is their reliance on the three ball, Gortat’s disappearance and 39-year-old Hill being essentially their go-to-guy.

Five of the Suns’ final nine shots came beyond the arc, with one coming from ice cold Hill and one from Brown. The only shot I would have lived with if I were a coach was Nash’s open triple off of the dribble, although he missed long.

Other than that the Suns settled for far too many low percentage threes. Overall, Phoenix’s offense consisted of Nash dribbling around for 15-18 seconds and the Suns jacking up a jumper or Hill failing to convert.

Speaking of Hill, it’s a major problem when a 39-year-old is taking three of Phoenix’s final nine shots, especially on a night where he missed his first eight attempts. What’s even more alarming is that Gortat’s only shot came on a 19-footer with the shot clock winding down.

The Suns rarely found him in the pick and roll or in the post, and when they did, he was reluctant to attack. Phoenix’s offense lacks spacing late in games against good defenses because teams simply key in on Nash and the Suns have no slashers, playmakers or post-up specialists.

Defensively, the Suns allowed Kobe to have his way. He scored 14 points in the final six minutes and every one of the Lakers’ nine final shots came inside 12 feet. Kobe caught the ball basically wherever he wanted and only once did the Suns throw a double team at him, and by that time it was too late.

In total, the Suns are never going to shut down Kobe or elite scorers late in games. But how they can hang around is by figuring out a way to utilize Nash, Gortat, Hill and the shooters surrounding them to create easy offense in crunch time.

If they can’t do that, this could be a long season.

  • sun-arc

    wow. THAT is analysis. Great stuff, Mike.

    I agree with everything you said. Though, some of the calls (Gortat not charging thru Walton, and Hill going reverse on the layup) I can see why they did what they did at that moment. Hindsight is 20/20, and I think they reacted at the moment the best they could.

    But, really, we miss Amare in these offensive situations- or someone that can get to the line. I know Hak’s defense is questionable- but he’s the only one on the team that can do this right now. But- put him in on Barnes, and who knows what happens..? Though we all know the offense at the end of the game is going to run through Kobe and Gasol, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.

    That play where no one boxed out Walton is totally inexcusable. That is one of the most embarrasing moments this season. How the hell are there 3 guys down there and Walton is the one that gets the ball? Oy. And Hill ran down the court expecting an outlet pass because there was nothing but purple jersies under the basket, and so he left Kobe open for the dunk. Can’t blame him. In fact, you gotta love his optimism. Double oy.

    And why weren’t they getting Frye involved in the offense? He was making shots. Couldn’t they design something to get him free? Is this a coaching problem too?

    But, having said all that, there was a lot of good effort otherwise. They were in there fighting. They are just one piece away from being a really good team. I think they need a SF who can create his own shot and get to the line- or an unbelievably good SG who can play D and create his own shot or get to the line. (A Gerald Wallace / Eric Gordon type player). Then they’d win a game like this.

  • Kevin

    Great analysis. I am kinda disappointed in the coaching. I understand you don’t have an easy scoring option like Kobe but can’t you have figured out some way to get a good look? Also, the defense was ok, but didn’t they see Kobe was having his way way too easy? Is this a coaching problem?

  • A-ROCK

    French Fry you are a specialist, Coach alvin gentry you need to take the title coach away and just be mentor alvin gentry, I will say this again and again it is a coaching problem, there are to many reasons to see why and I don’t have the time right now, it is obvious with the play calls, the substitutions early in the game, why he needs to play everyone in an important game with a day of rest coming up in addition to taking out his hottest playing players at the time, just stupid, Grant hill lol I just got to laugh at this guy, come on a stopper no he got abused and still couldn’t muster any offense, I still say he doesn’t start especially when he misses HIS pateneted jumper on a consitant basis, it’s just ugly to watch, he doesn’t need that play if it’s not clutch it ruins everyones flow, and why is the rookie out their taking all the shots for the 2nd team with out a timeout or something, is he really the suns savior (come on) not saying it is his fault at all it’s the great assistant coach (mentor) gentry, as i said before his x’s and o’s are not punctual! they need to put warrick in the starting line up for Grant “over the ” Hill and we need an explosive 2 guard. IN ALL HONESTY THE SUNS MATCH UP WELL AGAINST THE LAKERS AND SHOULD HAVE WON, THE LAKERS ARE NOT A BETTER TEAM AND NOT AS DEEP AS THE SUNS, IT’S THE COACHING STAFF AND THE INAPPROPRIAT SUBSTITUTIONS AND PLAY CALLING THAT WILL KILL THIS SEASON, LOOK AT THE GREAT TEAMS, THE TEAM IS ONLY AS GOOD AS THE COACH ex. PHIL JACKSON FROM CHICAGO TO LA BABY IN DEMAND. WE NEED A NEW COACH. Good news for Sarver you can get rid of gentry’s salary and pick up the High School coach from Kelis High school in phoenix for about $100,000 which would be 3 million or so less than gentry’s getting paid, save money and incorparate some real passion into the building and team. Along with good plays ;)

  • Tony

    Good stuff and great analysis,

    first off, I don’t understand why the Suns didn’t double Kobe in the 4th quarter early on to change his perception of the defense? He was in rythm and the Suns needed to break that. One way to do so is by putting a different defender on him but another way is with the double team. Gentry seems to consistently be a step late in his strategic adjustments. He waited far too long to double Bryant.

    For years the Suns have had the problem where teams trap Nash at center court and the play subsequently breaks down. In the past, however, the Suns had other players to create when this happened, ala Amare, or JJ, or even J-Rich at times. Now, however, thanks once again to Robert Sarver, the team does not have anyone to create once Nash is forced to give up the ball.

    Mike, correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I saw, Mike Brown made a very smart decision late in the game to have his man guarding Hill to play off him a bit, enticing Nash or whomever on the Suns to give the ball up to Hill so that he would be the one to shoot. This may have just been inadvertent, but the fact that Hill was frequently open in the 4th quarter makes me think this was by design.

  • Scott

    When the Suns came out, I felt Nash was the only one with an aggressive swagger. (Well, maybe some from Dudley too, but I don’t know if I’m remembering the right game.) As time went on, Nash’s aggression faded and there really was no aggression from anyone else. Hill had moments of defensive aggression on Kobe, but IMO what the Suns really needed was big men playing like big men, plus some slashing wing play.

    Sure, Frye can hit the 3. It helps. Morris can hit the 3. Gortat can bomb away from 12-20 ft. I think I even saw Robin try to shoot from the corner. But you can’t have all your big guys in love with the jump shot. Yes, it’s supposed to clear out space around the basket, but what if your opponent just dares you to shoot, expecting the law of averages to catch up with you? Then you find at the end of the game the paint is packed, the opposing big men aren’t in foul trouble, and you’re down points.

    The only power move I recall in the game was a tip-in by Frye. As for rebounding, the only rebound I remember someone going strong to get was actually Bynum (not our guy) ripping one from over the back of Lopez.

    IMO, our guys played like they were intimidated by the Lakers, and they played in Dallas like they were intimidated.

  • Grover

    Great analysis as always.

    Brown is not working out for the suns. What a rhythm killer. He’s not a good shooter, passer, or ball handler nor does he play intelligent basketball… Generally all considered staples of being a good guard. Let’s hope he’s the one seeing reduced minutes when Redd starts playing (obviously assuming Redd doesn’t even worse).

    Glad to finally see someone willing to point out areas where Gortat needs work. The general attitude on this board is that Gortat is “the man” and already one of the best centers in the league. I think he has the athleticism and attitude he could one day get there, but he’s got a lot of work left. Right now he is far to dependent on a great pass from Nash. He needs to be able to drive to the rim from the elbows, get to the free throw line more often, and learn to score despite contact. Without improvements in those areas, he will be a nice role player, but never an all star.

    Something seems wrong with Hill. Maybe it’s the lack of training camp and he’ll work his way back over the coming weeks, but he seems to lost a lot from his legs. He’s not finishing around the rim as well, not getting out and getting as many easy buckets, and leaving his threes short (though last season may have been an aberration as he was never good at threes in his career until last year). I’m hoping he’s not finally showing his age.

    How sad for the Suns that their playoff hopes could depend on a player (Redd) who has barely played in the last 2-3 years and is coming off two successive ACL tears.

  • Scott

    One more thing … I would have put Childress in to cover Kobe some of the time. Sure he’s a scoring liability, but the Suns are paying him over $6 million and he can defend players like Kobe.

  • Scott

    @Grover -

    Hill’s legs have not come into shape yet and are often tired. But he refuses to admit it and wants to play as many minutes as possible, even in practices. Gentry is, I think, a bit guilty of enabling Hill. (Keep in mind that when Hill originally injured his ankle with the Pistons, he decided to keep playing on it, and Gentry was his coach.)

    As for Redd … at least his injuries were repairable soft tissue, and not bone like Brandon Roy. I understand Roy clicks when he runs. (shudder)

  • Zak

    Gortat’s problem may just be that he grew up playing B-ball in Europe. I was just reading an article that was talking about how in Europe attacking the basket isn’t really stressed. It’s a jump shooter’s game over there and maybe Gortat still has some of those instincts that he needs to overcome.

    And facts are facts regarding Hill. He’s 39 years old. How many 39 year olds are there in the NBA that are starting? Or even playing? I love the guy but maybe the tank is just starting to run out of gas.

    Maybe Gentry’s biggest failing is that he still gives everyone the green light to fire up threes, especially late in games. The Suns need to drive to the basket, force fouls and take their chances at the free throw line instead of tossing up three after three.

  • Scott

    @Zak -

    Nah, I don’t think Hill is running out of gas. I think he’s just trying too much in the early season before he’s really in shape.

    If he’s still unable to get to the rim in a month, well … okay, then he’s “over the Hill.” ;)

    As for Gortat not being aggressive around the basket, I don’t see SVG putting up with that. I think it’s like how good/bad shooting can be contagious … the lack of aggression by the team has been contagious.

  • Zak

    Time will tell about Hill. Like I said, I love the guy and hope he’s still just getting into “game shape”. I think the entire team is better than they have been playing (except for Nash). I think they’re all waiting for someone else to “step up” and become the “go-to” guy. On this team, only Steve and Grant have ever been “that guy” before. It’s fine to defer to them when when things are working as they expect but there are also times for role players to step out of their roles and take the lead at times.