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.

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