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May 24, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Suns Find the Zone

by Kevin Pelton

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at Phoenix 118, L.A. Lakers 109 (L.A. Lakers lead series 2-1)
Pace: 96.6
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 126.1, L.A. Lakers 109.4

Lost in the rush to excoriate the Phoenix Suns for their defensive performance in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals was this key fact: The Los Angeles Lakers weren't exactly shutting the Suns down at the other end of the floor. If Phoenix could maintain that level of output while playing even adequate defense, then, the Suns could be competitive in this series. Thus the storyline for Game Three.

After briefly and unsuccessfully flirting with a 2-3 zone defense in Game Two, Alvin Gentry adopted it whole-heartedly in the second quarter of Game Three after the Lakers put up 37 first-quarter points. The results were highly positive. Though the Lakers had a strong third quarter, scoring 32 points, Phoenix got stops i the second and fourth quarters. The net result was the Lakers posting a 109.4 Offensive Rating that was only average and certainly a far cry from their 130-plus points per 100 possessions in the first two games.

Kobe Bryant was brilliant early, scoring 15 first-quarter points, and found enough holes in the zone to score 21 the rest of the way. Bryant did have five turnovers and shot 2-of-8 from beyond the arc, but he also dished out 11 assists and was excellent on two-point attempts (11-of-16), hitting frequently from the fringes of the paint. The zone certainly did little to deter Pau Gasol, who merely made 11 of his 14 shot attempts and scored 23 points. (Since the start of the Utah series, the unstoppable Gasol is shooting 64.7 percent from the field.) The Lakers also got a strong effort from Derek Fisher, who needed just 12 possessions to score 18 points, dropping in three of his six three-point attempts.

Pretty much everyone else in purple struggled, however, most notably the bench. Lamar Odom wasn't nearly as crisp as in the first two games, missing 10 of his 14 shot attempts before fouling out. Guards Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar spent most of the night either missing from the perimeter or turning the ball over. As a group, the L.A. bench shot 2-for-11 from beyond the arc and committed seven of the team's 17 turnovers.

Add in seven attempts (and five misses) from Ron Artest beyond the arc and the Lakers were way too three-happy. They tried 32 in all, making nine of them for a 28.1 percent clip. You can attribute the free-throw differential (42 attempts for Phoenix to 20 for the Lakers) to refereeing, but know that L.A. didn't help itself by attacking the zone on the inside. Instead, the Lakers played right into the Suns' hands by settling for threes.

Of course, you'll note that the Lakers shot far better than 28.1 percent from downtown in Wednesday's Game Two. Without reviewing all their attempts, it's tough to say how much of that was a function of Phoenix's improved defensive activity in terms of contesting shots on the perimeter, but it looked to me like the Lakers got their looks and were unable to knock them down, which is in keeping with the team's regular-season problems from beyond the arc. Eventually, the Lakers were bound to cool down, and the zone played a part by making perimeter attempts the easy option for them.

At the other end of the floor, Phoenix's pick-and-roll execution was so good that DVDs of this game could be marketed and sold to high-school coaches. Sadly, those coaches will soon find that they don't have a point guard as skilled as Steve Nash and they definitely don't have a finisher on the order of Amar'e Stoudemire. Taking the ball right at the teeth of the Lakers defense time and again, Stoudemire was unstoppable. He played the entire second half, scoring 29 points and making 10 of his 12 shot attempts in that span. The effort harkened back to the 2005 Western Conference Finals against San Antonio, when Stoudemire was arguably the best player on the court. Stoudemire matched his postseason career high of 42 points from that series.

The Suns got a more surprising offensive lift from Robin Lopez, who scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting. His confidence building by the moment, Lopez even knocked down a couple of mid-range jumpers. It is safe to say he has been an upgrade on Jarron Collins. With Lopez playing well and Jared Dudley having an off night, Gentry never once went to smallball.

Phoenix was super on offense even without almost anything in the way of bench contributions. Channing Frye still can't buy a bucket in this series, and guards Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic were quiet. As a group, the Suns' second unit scored 15 points on 25 shooting possessions, a dismal rate that underscores how just efficient the starters (103 points on 75 shooting possessions) were.

After winning eight consecutive playoff games, a streak that stretched back to Game Four of their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder nearly a month ago, the Lakers now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to figure out how to deal with their opponents' success. The most obvious change would be more minutes for Andrew Bynum, which would both help beef up the Lakers' defense at the rim and help them dominate the offensive glass against the zone, but Bynum's meniscus tear has apparently become such a problem that Phil Jackson mused to reporters after the game about shutting the center down entirely for Game Four.

Without Bynum, the Lakers would be forced to rely heavily on Gasol and Odom up front. Like Stoudemire, Gasol played the entire second half and 45 minutes in total. That playing time is going to add up as we return to a schedule with a game every other day, but Jackson clearly doesn't trust either of his options off the bench, DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell. Rather than using one of them to spell Odom in the second half, the Lakers moved Artest to power forward for some smallball of their own.

Defensively, the Lakers might want to try something differently in how they defend the pick-and-roll. Even after Phoenix shot 5-of-20 from beyond the arc (including 0-for-11 from the bench), the Lakers probably don't want to have to bring over a third player and invite the Suns to get open looks from the perimeter. Perhaps then the answer is softening up the post player's hedging against Nash with the goal of turning him into a scorer instead of a playmaker. That's a dangerous game, certainly, but now it's the Lakers who find themselves forced to choose between unpalatable alternatives on defense.

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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