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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Suns Squeak by Undermanned Lakers, 99-94

The Suns defeated the Lakers 99-94 in Phoenix on Sunday in a rematch of one of last year's most exciting first round playoff series. The big difference this time is how depleted the Lakers' roster is due to injuries. Starting forwards Lamar Odom and Luke Walton are out. Key reserves Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm are also sidelined, while starting center Kwame Brown has just returned to action and is still shaking off rust. The Suns suited up all of their key players except for the multi-talented Boris Diaw (back spasms), so one would think that they would win easily--but that was not the case at all. Steve Nash overcame a sluggish first half (2-11 field goal shooting) to finish with 23 points and 10 assists, shooting 9-21 (.429) from the field. Kobe Bryant scored 31 points and had six assists, shooting 11-28 (.393) from the field. Each MVP candidate shot worse from the field than he usually does. Interestingly, from a statistical standpoint, they accounted for an identical number of points: valuing each assist at two points, they each contributed 43 tangible points. I say tangible because each player has value beyond his statistics. Bryant draws double-teams, which leads to wide open shots even on plays when he does not deliver the scoring pass. Nash's dribble penetration similarly distorts the opposing team's defense even though it is not necessary (or even desirable) to double-team him. Their similar production should not surprise anyone because both players' numbers--other than their mutually subpar shooting--were right in line with their season averages.

Bryant and Nash are playmakers in the truest, fullest sense of the term because their actions set the table for the vast majority of what their teams do offensively. They score, they break down the defense and they make great passes. Bryant's performance enabled the Lakers to stay close (never trailing by more than 10) even though their patchwork lineup included Shammond Williams and Aaron McKie, who had played in just 15 and five games respectively this season. The only Laker other than Bryant who scored more than eight points was Brian Cook (22 points), who started at power forward in place of Odom. Bryant played virtually the entire game (44:51), faced two great individual defenders (Raja Bell, then Shawn Marion, who eventually fouled out) and had to deal with frequent double-teaming. When Bryant was single-covered he generally scored or drew fouls (8-10 free throw shooting); when he faced double-coverage he made a number of gorgeous passes. Unfortunately, many of them did not result in assists because his teammates either fumbled them or missed the ensuing shot attempts. In the first half, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several Phoenix defenders and delivered a point blank behind the back pass to Kwame Brown. This is the kind of pass that Steve Nash fans rave about and that usually results in a dunk by All-Stars Amare Stoudemire or Shawn Marion; instead, the ball went straight through Brown's hands. The most enjoyable part of the game was a six minute stretch in the fourth quarter when Bryant and Nash alternated great plays. Bryant scored or made a great pass and then Nash answered with a basket or a nice feed. Bryant had seven points and three assists during that time, while Nash had eight points and one assist (both players also had passes that led to free throw attempts and/or eventually resulted in baskets).

Bryant's sweetest pass of the game came with 7:59 remaining in the third quarter when he delivered a no look feed to Cook for a fast break dunk that gave the Lakers a 55-54 lead. Nash had several bounce passes that came from unreal angles and landed right on target.

These teams are heading in opposite directions right now and the reason why can be seen by looking at the boxscore. We've already looked at the performances delivered by the team's respective MVP candidates. They essentially canceled each other out. Four Phoenix players other than Nash scored in double figures, paced by Sixth Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa, who had 20 points, four rebounds and four assists. Meanwhile, the Laker guards other than Bryant (Smush Parker, Shammond Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Aaron McKie) shot 5-18 from the field and combined to score 15 points. The Suns could basically ignore those guys and run double-teams at Bryant. The Lakers simply did not have enough scoring threats on the court to run a viable offense. This led to shot clock violations, turnovers and some "hand grenade" shots by Bryant (a "hand grenade" is when the play breaks down and someone passes the ball to Bryant with less than five seconds on the shot clock, ensuring that a desperate, low percentage shot will ensue before the shot clock "explodes"--the equivalent of throwing away a hand grenade before it explodes). Jordan Farmar will be a solid point guard at some point but he has hit the rookie wall like a ton of bricks and did not play at all versus Phoenix. The Lakers are really struggling to put a legitimate team on the court--their frontcourt is decimated without Odom and Walton and the guard situation (other than Bryant, of course) may be even worse. It will take a tremendous performance by Bryant down the stretch to keep the Lakers in the playoff hunt if they don't get some of their injured players back quickly. Prior to the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson indicated that he reached out to 41 year old Scottie Pippen to see if the six-time champion is serious about coming back. Pippen's ballhandling and defense could be just what the Lakers need, assuming that his body is physically up to the task.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:24 PM

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