Suns Outlast Lakers, 93-85Kobe Bryant shot just 7-26 from the field as the L.A. Lakers fell to the Phoenix Suns, 93-85; he finished with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. If you ever wondered what would have happened to the Lakers in March if Bryant had not shot the lights out and averaged over 40 ppg, the answer came during this game--and it was not pretty. Meanwhile, Steve Nash had an outstanding performance, shooting 10-16 from the field, scoring 26 points with 14 assists and just one turnover. The Suns only had eight turnovers and the Lakers committed just nine, but--other than Nash--both teams shot horribly: 34-89 (.382) for Phoenix, 35-89 (.393) for L.A. The game was decided at the free throw line, where the Suns shot 18-20 (.900) and the Lakers shot 8-12 (.667). Bryant, who normally attempts 10 free throws per game, shot 2-2. The Lakers trailed by as many as 16 in the second half but rallied to get as close as five points. The Lakers gave a valiant effort in the second game of a back to back against a superior team but, as ESPN analyst Hubie Brown might say, "Nobody outside of Lakerland cares about that." The end result was a loss--and potentially a very damaging one at that. The Clippers and Warriors are right behind the Lakers, who have not clinched a playoff berth yet; they have just two games remaining and risk falling out of the postseason picture if they don't get their ship righted in a hurry.
How bad was the shooting in this game? Amare Stoudemire had a double-double (15 points, 16 rebounds), but shot 4-16 from the field. Shawn Marion scored 16 points and had 11 rebounds, but shot 7-18 from the field. The leading candidate for the Sixth Man Award, Leandro Barbosa, shot 3-10 from the field and scored only eight points. Luke Walton was one bright spot for the Lakers, leading the team with 19 points while shooting 8-17 from the field. He also had eight rebounds and five assists. Lamar Odom shot 7-19 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line, finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds and no assists.
The Smush Parker era seems to be rapidly drawing to a close in L.A. He shot 0-4 from the field in just 16 minutes of "action," contributing one rebound and one assist while watching Nash blow by him for 11 first quarter points on 5-5 shooting. Parker made only a cameo appearance in the second half and was on the bench when the Lakers made their comeback in the fourth quarter. Parker jacked up a long jumper on the Lakers' first possession of the third quarter, missing badly. Brown was not impressed: "You're on the road, you had a bad first half, so do not come out and rush a long jump shot to start the second half. Smush Parker has got to understand who he is, what his role is on the team--and if you don't want to play within what we're doing, then we'll put someone else in that spot." Jackson did just that within a few minutes and Sasha Vujacic's defense on Nash played a key role in the Lakers' comeback that fell just short.
Dissatisfied with the production that the Lakers have been getting at center, Phil Jackson started Ronny Turiaf instead of Andrew Bynum. Turiaf is a high energy bench player who is not accustomed to starting or playing big minutes, but he turned in a very solid 10 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 29 minutes. Bynum may have drawn some motivation from the benching, because he responded with eight points and four blocked shots in just 19 minutes.
In many ways, this game was a microcosm of the Lakers' season, the main and obvious difference being Bryant's wayward shooting. The Suns defended him very well, their primary strategy being to double-team him whenever he got the ball. Bryant forced a couple shots, but for the most part he missed shots that he normally makes, including a few that went in and came back out. He was not able to split the double-teams very often, so Bryant spent a lot of the game drawing an extra defender and then passing to the open man; his shot attempts came in transition, off of screen and roll plays or on quick hitting moves before the double-team arrived. How can I say that he spent "a lot of the game" passing when Bryant attempted 26 shots and had four assists? Simple. I watched the game and charted what he did. Bryant's shots came from his normal areas--the post, the elbow and some dribble penetrations in the lane. What about the six three pointers, of which he made just one? One of those was a heave to beat the first quarter buzzer. Two others came in the last 36 seconds when the Lakers were trailing by five or six points. So when "Joe Expert" tells you that Bryant shot too many threes all game long and did not attack the defense, you can inform him that Bryant shot 1-3 on three pointers other than those three desperation shots. Brown noted early in the game that even though Bryant was not hitting his shots he was making things happen off of the dribble and taking shot attempts from high percentage areas. Near the end of the first quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew two defenders and passed to Odom for a layup that put the Lakers up 23-22. Brown said of Bryant, "He'll give it up anytime he's in the post area or off the dribble down in the paint. Anytime he gets double-teamed--that time he was triple-teamed--he'll find the free guy."
An interesting sequence happened near the end of the second quarter. Odom unleashed a contested air ball from beyond the three point line, leading to this comment from Brown: "You had Kobe Bryant posting on one side and Luke Walton cutting through (with Barbosa pinned on his hip) and you miss both guys and end up with an airball." On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant initiated the offense, driving to the hoop and drawing two defenders, then passing to Odom for a wide open three pointer that he made, his only successful three pointer of the game. No matter how poorly Bryant may shoot in a given game, teams will still double-team him and he can still create open shots for his teammates that would otherwise not be there.
The Lakers led by as much as seven points in the first quarter and kept the game close throughout the first half, trailing only 51-50 at halftime. Nash abused the Lakers--mostly Parker--for 15 points on 7-10 shooting in the first half, adding seven assists. Bryant scored 13 points on 5-15 shooting and had four rebounds and three assists. The big story for the Lakers was that they finally got some production from someone other than Bryant: Walton had 11 points on 5-9 shooting, Bynum had six points on 3-4 shooting and Vujacic scored five points on 2-2 shooting. However, those three players shot just 3-12 in the second half.
The game began to slip away from the Lakers in the third quarter. Odom committed three fouls in six minutes and shot just 1-4 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line as the Suns took a 67-56 lead. The Lakers stayed close in the first half even with Bryant shooting poorly because his presence created open shots for others. As Brown put it during the telecast, "Kobe Bryant is a great passer and when you add Walton you have two guys on the floor who can create. Lamar Odom can always be your third distributor." The Lakers fell behind when the offense was run through Odom in the early part of the third quarter. I understand and respect that Odom is playing despite having an injured left (shooting) shoulder; my point is simply that this Lakers team is not nearly as good as the Lakers team of a year ago, which ended the season strongly and almost upset Phoenix in the first round. Odom is banged up, Kwame Brown is out of the lineup and Walton seems to be just returning to form. Meanwhile, Bryant may be worn down from the load that he has carried since the All-Star break.
One more observation about the Lakers and then I'll turn my attention to the Suns. Late in the third quarter, Bryant drew a double-team and passed to Walton, who immediately swung the ball to a wide open Maurice Evans. Instead of shooting a rhythm jumper, Evans hesitated and then missed a contested fadeaway. Hubie Brown made an important observation: "He had a wide open shot. In situations like that out of double teams, when the ball comes to you on the second pass, you have to be ready to shoot." That has been one of my biggest criticisms of Bryant's teammates: they are either unwilling or unable to make the open shots that result from him being double-teamed. The problem is neither that Bryant shoots too much nor that he passes too little; it is that his teammates don't take advantage of playing four on three. Yes, Bryant shot poorly in this particular game, but that is an aberration, because he's been putting up 35-40 ppg or more for the last 40 games, shooting a good percentage plus contributing rebounds and assists; the failure of his teammates to take advantage of open shots is a season-long theme. On the next possession after Evans' miss, Bryant put his head down, drove to the hoop and attempted a running bank shot, which caromed wildly off of the glass. "It's not in the cards for him tonight," Brown said simply after that play. When Bryant came off of the court at the end of the quarter, he and Jackson talked briefly. I don't know what was said but my guess would be that Jackson asked about that shot and Bryant answered something to the effect of "What am I supposed to do? When I give the ball up, no one wants to shoot."
The bottom line is that the Lakers simply are not a very good team now. If they make it to the playoffs they will likely get swept, unless they somehow find a way to start playing the way that they did last April and May. What about Phoenix? This was an important home game for the Suns, who are trying to hold off the charging Spurs and keep the second seed in the West. The Lakers are discombobulated and even Bryant could not bail them out on this night--but it was just a five point game with 1:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. Why couldn't the Suns put this team away? Two reasons: (1) The Suns shot just 7-25 from three point range. Their running attack is fueled not by layups but by long jumpers. If the Suns have a bad shooting night from beyond the arc then they are not going to blow anyone out, even a flawed team like the Lakers. (2) The Suns have been accused of being a poor defensive team but point differential is one of Hubie Brown's favorite stats--dating back to his coaching days--and he mentioned more than once that the Suns have an excellent point differential. They are clearly making a strong effort to play defense and they have enough quick players to bother people on the perimeter. The problem is that Phoenix is soft in the middle and no amount of effort is going to change that. Anytime the Lakers sent someone in the post they did damage: Bynum, Walton, Odom and Bryant got a lot of their points on postups. Jackson called this the "Inside Man" strategy (named after the Spike Lee movie) during last year's playoffs and it almost enabled the Lakers to knock off the Suns. The Lakers are too out of whack to pull that off this year, but the first team that shuts down the Suns' three point attack and pounds the ball in the paint on offense will eliminate Phoenix from this year's playoffs. The Utah Jazz have been slumping recently but they have done well against Phoenix this year and they play the Suns on Saturday night; it will be interesting to see if the Jazz are able to do those two things against the Suns.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:52 AM