Everything was in place for history to repeat itself.
Black uniforms? Check. Kobe Bryant in “pass-first” mode? Check. A huge late-game run? Check. Big game from Michael Beasley? Check.
For the second time in two weeks, the Suns donned their retro uniforms to take on the Los Angeles Lakers. They fought back from a double-digit deficit with an 18-2 run in the third quarter. Michael Beasley had 18 points off the bench. And Kobe Bryant didn’t make his first field goal until 2:11 in the fourth quarter. But all of that was not enough to secure the Suns a victory as they fell 91-85 at the Staples Center.
Let me say that again: Kobe Bryant made his one and only field goal with two minutes left in this game. He didn’t attempt a shot in the first half and finished the night with just four points. It was the strangest Kobe game I’ve ever seen.
The Kobe Bryant of old became a ruthless scoring machine every time he took the floor against Phoenix. Every time he played the Suns he was a shoe-in to take 20+ shots and score 30 or more points. But New Kobe is all about passing, and tonight he was out to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I don’t want to take anything away from the tough defense P.J. Tucker played on the Black Mamba for much of the game, but P.J. could have sat down in the middle of the court and twiddled his thumbs on every defensive possession. Kobe was not going to shoot no matter what in the first half. He passed up shot after shot in favor of getting his teammates the basketball. On the night, Kobe tallied nine assists and eight turnovers. When he did start looking for his shot in the third when the Suns had slashed the Lakers’ lead, Bryant missed his first seven attempts before connecting on his eighth and final one.
The Lakers survived Kobe’s bizarre performance by holding the Suns to 41 percent shooting and busting out some vintage Seven Seconds or Less offense.
After Suns’ missed buckets, the Lakers took a shot or drew a foul within seven seconds on eleven different possessions. Mike D’Antoni’s team, especially in the first half, made a point to push the tempo and exploit the Suns transition defense. The box score may say the Lakers only scored 10 fast break points, but a large portion of their first half points came from open looks out of transition. Phoenix’s default tactic all season when overmatched or outrun defensively has been to retreat into the paint. The Lakers, with Kobe distributing, knocked down open shot after open shot as the Suns’ defense collapsed and failed to get out on shooters. The Lakers were hitting 60 percent from the floor at one point in the first half. The only thing that kept them from running away with this one was some solid play by the Suns second unit and some ice-cold shooting in the second half.
In addition to another productive game from Michael Beasley, the Suns got a very solid contribution from Jermaine O’Neal, who posted just his second double-double of the season with 12 points and 13 boards in 27 minutes. Playing in place of Marcin Gortat, O’Neal was not intimated by Howard in the least. He battled for boards on both ends and wasn’t afraid to attack Howard on offense. Gortat wasn’t his normal soft and unproductive self against Howard in this one, but he wasn’t battling like Jermaine.
Other than O’Neal and Beasley, the rest of the bench was quite disappointing. Shannon Brown played only five minutes, by far his lowest total of the season. Kendall Marshall did his best New Kobe impersonation in his 16 minutes on the court, passing up tons of open shots. If Marshall wants to be a permanent fixture in the rotation, he has got pull the trigger on open jumpers. Whether or not he makes the shot isn’t nearly as important as the practice and experience he’ll get.
For the starters, Luis Scola netted a double-double (15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 11 boards) despite some staunch defense by Metta World Peace. The Suns were the most effective on offense when Scola and either Gortat or O’Neal were stationed at the high post. Some of the plays they ran are drawn up here. The double high post set spaced the court well and drew Dwight Howard away from the basket, giving the Suns a chance to score at the rim. As the game wore on, Phoenix went away from this set for some reason, and their offensive production tailed off dramatically.
In addition to his tough D on Kobe, P.J. Tucker also went 5-of-10 from the floor with two made threes, four rebounds, and five assists. The more I watch Tucker, the more I realize he’s the quintessential role player on a Championship contender. While the Suns are far from contention right now, it’s clear that Tucker is cut from the same cloth as former players like Bruce Bowen or current defense/shooter/effort guys like Thabo Sefalosha. Tucker is a piece the Suns should certainly hold onto moving forward.
Tucker’s teammates let him down defensively in this game. Phoenix allowed a ton of points in the paint (46). On a night where it was obvious to any viewer that he did not have all his athletic gifts available to him, Dwight Howard still managed an impressive 19 and 18. His frontcourt mate Antawn Jamison netted 18 points and 10 boards, which gave him a double-double for the first time in a month. Howard and Steve Nash connected on a few pick and rolls that looked completely effortless. As Howard continues to heal, I think the pick and roll domination everyone expected from these two will start to be seen more and more.
After two mammoth beatdowns at the hands of the Thunder, the Suns did not play with much effort or cohesion in this one, yet they almost pulled it out. That fact is equal parts an indictment of these Lakers and proof that Lindsey Hunter still has work to do with this team. They’ll have the entire All-Star break to start putting some pieces together.
- Michael Beasley’s new aggressiveness and preference for penetration has led to a large number of travelling violations. On most possessions, Beas catches the ball and drives straight for the hoop without hesitating. If his defender crowds him at all, Michael shuffles his feet and gets whistled for “too many steps” more often than not. His excitement to attack the rim must be controlled if it’s to be an asset to both him and the team.
- Jermaine O’Neal has nine technical fouls this year. He is the league leader in technicals per minute by a wide margin.
- Steve Nash could pass Magic Johnson for fourth on the all-time assists list on Valentine’s Day against the Clippers. He also has a shot to eclipse 17,000 career points in the same game.