Small ball works, but defense falters in Game 2 loss


The Phoenix Suns’ 36-9 sprint to the Western Conference Finals came so easily that when they lost it was just because they didn’t shoot well or the other team played out of its mind or they were playing their fourth game in five days.

And even then they usually lost just barely.

Two games into the Western Conference Finals, you can’t use any of those excuses for why the Suns have dropped a pair of games. This time around they lost because they could not stop a bigger, more talented, more physical team from exploding on offense.

Although their 124-112 Game 2 loss wasn’t the blowout that Game 1 was by any stretch, it was even more disappointing because it legitimately felt like this was a game the Suns could steal after they knotted things up after three with a 34-25 third quarter.

Instead a putrid fourth quarter meant the Suns had lost back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 25-26, after which Phoenix reeled off 10 straight wins following losses and started this 36-9 tear. The Suns have also not lost a game by as many points as they lost either Game 1 or 2 by since Jan. 16 in Charlotte.

Before tonight the Suns had been somewhat invincible when J-Rich goes for 20, but despite Richardson netting a game-high 27 points the Suns still couldn’t pull this one out.

The Suns played weak first and fourth quarters — getting outscored by a combined 26 points in those quarters — but their bench (of course!) shifted the game with an 11-0 second-quarter run to cut the Lakers’ lead to three. After being largely quiet in Game 1, the bench did what it’s done all season, putting life into this Phoenix team during that spurt

The Suns then came out strong to start the second half and ended up playing their best basketball of the series in the final 7:22 of the third when Jared Dudley replaced Robin Lopez to give the Suns a small ball lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Amare.

This is not a lineup the Suns used much during the regular season, often favoring a second big and just one of Hill/Dudley, but it sure worked tonight. That unit outscored the Lakers by nine the rest of the quarter to leave things tied up at 90 at the end of three.

Dudley did a decent job on Kobe and despite playing so small Phoenix limited Los Angeles to just 25 points, its lowest scoring quarter of the series.

On the other end, Hill hopped in his hot tub time machine and went for 14 in the quarter off a dizzying array of mid-range jumpers and J-Rich chipped in with 12. The Suns had five shooters on the floor and played their only sustained period of excellent basketball of the series aside from the quick 11-0 bench run in the second.

But then Gentry went to his bench to start the fourth and that’s where things started to unravel. Jordan Farmar hit a back-breaking triple to start the quarter, and the Lakers opened the period on a 7-3 run. It was 99-95 by the time Steve Nash re-entered, but the Lakers kept their mojo going and cruised to victory.

I don’t second guess Gentry on this move. Amare, Hill and Dudley all started the quarter (Lou soon replaced Hill and Channing replaced Amare), and Nash was back sooner than usual.

The bench has been so good all year — and even earlier in this game — that you can’t just let your starters play all game, although the Lakers practically did that with Pau playing 44, Kobe 43 and Artest 40. Meanwhile, only Amare (41) played more than 36 on the Phoenix side.

When you look at the big picture numbers, you can’t complain about Phoenix’s offense. The Suns scored 113.1 points per 100 possession (which is better than their season average), and that’s right about where they were at in Game 1. The Suns also shot 49.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three.

In a nutshell, the offense isn’t the problem. That should be good enough to win basketball games.

“We’re getting enough points,” Steve Nash said. “Like I said, they’re loading up on the pick and roll so other guys are surviving off of it. We’ve got to find a way to slow them down. We’re scoring enough points. I think we’re pretty efficient on the pick and rolls, whether it’s myself or the roller or the guys coming in on the weak side who are left open. So I’m not really concerned about the scoring because we’re getting lots of points.

“But like I said, at this time of year it’s asking a little bit too much of the offense. If we’re going to give up 120 something every game, then, yeah, I probably do have to score more points. But I think we’ve gotten still a lot of love out of our pick and rolls. We’ve just got to defend better.”

Like Nash was saying, Hill found himself free because of the attention drawn by the pick and roll, but that defense was horrid once again. It wasn’t as atrocious as it was in Game 1 when the Suns yielded 134.7 pp100, but the 125.3 pp100 possessions they gave up in Game 2 wasn’t much better.

The Lakers shot 57.7 percent in this one after knocking down 58.0 percent of their field goals in the first game, as the Suns once again had no answers for Los Angeles inside. Pau Gasol crushed Phoenix for 29 on 11-for-19 shooting, Lamar Odom went for an efficient 17 and 11 on 7-for-10 shooting (another “lucky” game you could say), Andrew Bynum made all five of his field goals in 18 minutes and Kobe facilitated with 21 points and 13 assists, the most for a Laker in the playoffs since Magic in 1996.

The performance left Suns coach Alvin Gentry so exasperated that he told ESPN’s Marc Stein following the game that he’s open for suggestions “even from the media.”

Gentry’s only solution may be to find more versatile defensive players on the streets or just play that small ball lineup that nearly outgunned the Lakers. With Amare Stoudemire getting beaten up on the interior, the Suns are in some trouble, especially when guys like Artest (6-for-9) and Farmar (4-for-5) are stroking.

“We are just having a hard time, we can’t slow them down,” Gentry said. “I thought we played well offensively, but every time we tried to make an adjustment to slow them down, they go somewhere else. And, you know, you do a great job on Kobe, and, you know, I thought we did. Then they go to Pau and we double team Pau and there’s Lamar, and we get it out of Lamar’s hand and Jordan Farmar makes shots. And there’s the reason they’re the world champs.”

With Hill, Richardson and Dudley combining for 65 points on 25-for-40 shooting (62.5 percent) but Phoenix still losing, some may think the Lakers have taken the Suns’ best shot unscathed, especially considering how well Phoenix shot as a team.

But on the flip side, the Suns committed 17 turnovers and got just six points on 2-for-15 shooting (13.3 percent) from Frye, Dragic and Barbosa, meaning Jared Dudley essentially was the bench in this contest. Frye was particularly terrible again, going 0-for-5 in nine minutes, making him 1-for-13 for the series.

Frye has not played single-digit minutes all season, so this clearly was a benching. He just had no confidence in himself, and the Suns losing Frye as a floor-spacing weapon reduces their effectiveness immensely. He better find his shot in Phoenix if the Suns are to turn this thing around.

Overall there are many positives for the Suns to build on. The small lineup could be an interesting foil to the Kobe-Pau-Lamar unit, and the Suns made a valiant comeback attempt that ultimately fell short without getting anything from their vaunted bench after the 11-0 run aside from Dudley’s strong run in small ball.

The Lakers are definitively in the driver’s seat and it would be considered a collapse if they lose, but the Suns showed enough life in the second half that Lakers fans would be wise to wait at least one more game before pondering the matchups in a Lakers-Celtics Finals.

And 1

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kobe was 4-for-4 against Hill in isolation situations but 0-for-4 against everyone else. Also, Odom was 7-for-9 from within four feet, but he missed his only shot from outside that range. … The Suns need to start getting off to better starts. This is the fifth straight game they dug themselves a first-quarter deficit, but unlike the first three they aren’t playing the Spurs anymore. … Pretty funny that Craig Sager asked Amare if the Lakers were “lucky” to win these first two games.