Phoenix was in the zone again.
Not the defense… well, they were in that too and it had an impact, but this time it was an offensive zone. There were stretches of Game 4 where it seemed no Sun could miss. The Lakers couldn’t figure them out.
But that offensive zone was really a string of little things that started with the defense, led to open threes for the Suns bench that got hot, and ended with a 115-106 Suns win that has even this series 2-2.
The series everybody had written off as over just a few days ago is now headed to a clash-of-styles Game 5 Thursday in Los Angeles that likely will decide the series.
Phoenix has figured out the little things. The question that remains is can they do this on the road, where their role players struggled and the calls are often not as friendly? You can see in the Suns eyes they think they can.
That confidence starts with the zone defense. The Lakers played better against it, to the tune of 105 points and 49 percent shooting. The Lakers scored, and at times they did what they wanted to do by getting the ball into the teeth of the Suns zone with passes to Pau Gasol in the high post, or off penetration.
But then they’d stop doing it for stretches. They’d take the path of least resistance and just go back to taking threes — they took 28 in this game after taking 32 last game. The Lakers are not a good three point shooting team, and they hit just 32 percent of those threes in Game 4.
That means a lot of long rebounds to fuel the Suns offense. And for the Suns bench, it was like rocket fuel. The Suns bench had 54 points (to the Lakers 20) on 62.5 percent shooting. The Suns took those rebounds and were off to the races — the Suns had 40 second quarter points largely fueled by those missed shots becoming Suns shots before the Lakers could get back and set their defense. They could not miss — even Channing Frye, who was 0-16 before this game, finished 4 of 8 from
three. The same thing happened in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers had tied the game but the Suns pulled away on three consecutive threes, two of them off missed Lakers shots.
“What was disappointing for me is the fact we took five threes in that sequence of action where they made up the ground when we took the lead in the fourth quarter,” Phil Jackson said in a televised interview on NBA TV after the game.
The chance to get out and run made the Suns the aggressors. Again. Phoenix made 22 free throws on 32 attempts, the Lakers were 7 of 13. The reason was not the referees, it was that the Lakers were settling for jumpers while the Suns were attacking. Further evidence of that, the Suns had 18 offensive rebounds.
Phoenix also exploited Andrew Bynum, who is clearly hurting. The Suns had Bynum’s man — Robin Lopez or Amare Stoudemire — come out and set the high screen for Steve Nash because Bynum was not mobile enough to slow Nash and recover to his man rolling toward the basket. Stoudemire finished with 21 points.
Kobe tried to take control himself, and he put on an impressive display of shooting on his way to 38 points (he hit 15 of 22 shots and was 6 of 9 from three). But late in the game the Suns started sending kamikaze double teams at him to get the ball out of his hands (same with Gasol) — let anyone else try to beat them, but not Kobe. It worked. The Lakers took threes and missed them.
Jackson said after the game he was fine with the Lakers offense, it was the defense that bothered him. But the two were interrelated — the Suns aggressiveness in their zone forced the Lakers into bad shot selections that fueled the Suns offense the Lakers couldn’t stop. It was more mental than physical, Kobe said.
“I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone, I think it kind of flipped our attention to detail defensively,” Bryant said in his televised interview. “Our focus was on the other end of the floor, which doesn’t win championships.”
If the Lakers are going to win a championship — or even compete for one in the Finals — they need to get that defensive attention back.
The Suns, on the other hand, need to keep riding the zone and the three point shooting. Their offense is a beautiful and powerful thing when unleashed. And right now, that storm is blowing the Lakers out of the way, much like the Lakers did to them in the first two games.
Game five Thursday night is going to be a fascinating clash of styles.