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May 21, 2010
Every Play Counts
Stopping the Lakers

by Kevin Pelton

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In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.

Here's the good news for the Phoenix Suns: Their Defensive Rating dropped between Games One and Two of the Western Conference Finals. Here's the bad news: The Lakers went from scoring at a rate of 140.8 points per 100 possessions in Game One to 136.0 points per 100 possessions in Game Two. Obviously, neither defensive effort was good enough to win and the Suns will have to find a way to lower that number considerably over the three days between now and when the series resumes in Phoenix on Sunday.

Having been unable to watch Game Two live, I used Synergy Sports to view every Lakers offensive possession from Wednesday night to try to answer the question of what went wrong for the Suns.

Amar'e Stoudemire's defense in the first two games has been raked over the coals, and it's easy to see why. Within the first three minutes of the game, Stoudemire was badly beaten twice, including one embarrassing play where he went the wrong direction as Andrew Bynum slipped to the rim for a dunk (did he think Bynum was a threat from the perimeter?). The Suns simply don't have a good matchup for Stoudemire in this series. Bynum is much too powerful, Pau Gasol too skilled in the post and Lamar Odom too quick for Stoudemire, exposing his weaknesses and reversing any apparent progress he made on the defensive end late in the season and early in the playoffs.

I'm not sure if Stoudemire's effort level is as big of a problem as it is being made out to be, but the results have been dreadful either way (using lineup data from BasketballValue.com). In the 40 possessions of the first two games Stoudemire has spent on the bench, the Lakers' Offensive Rating has dropped by more than 19 points per 100 possessions as compared to with Stoudemire in the game.

This is a problem without a solution. Stoudemire is valuable enough offensively that benching him is borderline unthinkable. Phoenix has had success with Stoudemire on the bench (they're +4 through two games), it's true, but it is hard to say how much of that has to do with Stoudemire and how much is due to the Suns' effective second unit.

One change Alvin Gentry should continue is playing Stoudemire against Gasol and Robin Lopez on Andrew Bynum when the teams' starting lineups are in the game. The two players cross-matched during the first half, but this doubled the Suns' defensive problems because Lopez was less effective defending the pick-and-roll on the perimeter than he was battling in the post. The Lakers' guards were able to beat Lopez off the dribble when he hedged against the pick-and-roll because his lateral mobility is limited right now. Bynum also tortured any Phoenix defender besides Lopez on the offensive glass, grabbing three offensive rebounds in 18 minutes.

Stopping the pick-and-roll in general has become a big issue for the Suns, which was especially apparent in the third quarter. Over and over again, Phil Jackson called for a high screen from Gasol for Kobe Bryant. Phoenix was taking an ultra-conservative approach to defending the ballhandler, having both defenders play contain defense to either side of the pick. That forced a third defender to come over and defend Gasol as he rolled to the basket, leaving a player open on the perimeter. Time and again, Bryant effectively moved the basketball and the Lakers got open shots.

Most of those plays are classified by Synergy as either spot-up attempts or cuts. The Lakers averaged 1.69 points per play on the former and 1.60 points per play on the latter, very high levels of efficiency.

By the fourth quarter, the Lakers had found an even simpler way to score: Simply throwing the ball to Gasol on the left block and letting him either work one-on-one against Stoudemire or draw the double-team and find the open man.

All of this success, it should be noted, is predicated on the Lakers moving the basketball and hitting shots, two things that were not exactly strengths of the L.A. offense during the regular season. At this point, I think we have to accept that the Lakers have turned something of a corner offensively. Starting with Game Five of the series against Oklahoma City, L.A. has been playing at a different level and executing much more consistently. That's as much responsible for the Lakers' success as what the Suns are doing or not doing defensively. That goes double when the Lakers are shooting well. They were 9-of-16 from beyond the arc on Wednesday, and while there were plenty of wide-open looks in the group, that's an awfully high percentage for the Lakers to make.

Two games into this series, Phoenix seems to be genuinely mystified by how to stop a Lakers team executing at this level, as exemplified both by Gentry's half-serious call for suggestions from the media after his post-game press conference and the number of different things the Suns tried on defense during the game. Seth Pollack of Bright Side of the Sun argued that confusion hurt Phoenix, and I think that's a fair assessment. It wasn't just Stoudemire who had some missed assignments trying to figure things out as the Suns switched their philosophy on the fly during the second quarter. I saw Phoenix play in person during the first round, and their rotations were far more predictable against Portland. On Wednesday, the team seemed to constantly be in scramble situations defensively, leading to mistakes.

One thing Gentry attempted only briefly was going to a 2-3 zone defense. The Suns played three possessions of zone, by my count, during the second quarter and quickly abandoned it after the Lakers scored seven points (including a three) on those three possessions. That's an awfully small sample size, but visually the zone was ineffective and it doesn't seem to take away the things the Lakers are doing well in this series (shooting the ball with range and moving it crisply).

If Gentry turned to this column for ideas, I'm not sure I know what I'd tell him. Phoenix has taken wildly different approaches in both Game One and Game Two and seen both be nearly equally ineffective. For Game Three, I would lean more toward the gameplan the Suns used to start the series. I maintain that the Lakers' dominant offense in the opener relied on performances from Bryant and Odom that they will struggle to repeat. Phoenix did a pretty good job of defending Bryant one-on-one when Jared Dudley replaced Grant Hill with that assignment before fouling out. Is that strategy necessarily a good one for the Suns? No, but I'm not sure I see any easy answers right now.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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