The Phoenix Suns made the right move when they held onto Amar’e Stoudemire at this year’s trade deadline. Amar’e is absolutely one of the best offensive big men in basketball, and he’s been a crucial part of Phoenix’s run to the Western Conference Finals. However, now that Phoenix has reached the Western Conference Finals, it’s beginning to look like it might not be possible to win a championship if your superstar power forward does not play a lick of defense. And Amar’e Stoudemire does not play a lick of defense.
As long as Ron Artest remains a Laker, he will be compared to Trevor Ariza. The circumstances that allowed for the addition of Artest and Ariza’s departure just fit together too conveniently, and considering the similar spaces and roles they’ve occupied within the Laker offense.
Artest apparently isn’t too keen on the comparison. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
About a week ago Ron Artest lingered after practice with a small group of reporters, sitting down
on an exercise machine and talking about his progress this postseason,
when somebody mentioned it took Trevor Ariza about a full season to fully grasp the Lakers’ system, too. “You’re going to compare me to him?” Artest asked, pained by the name.
Ariza’s 2009 triumphs have become something of a tall tale; Trevor was a piece of a championship formula and did a lot of good things for the Lakers that season, but from the way fans and media members have pined for him at times this season is a bit absurd. Ariza wasn’t a larger than life superstar, he was a nice complementary player that hit some shots and played great perimeter defense.
Turns out those commodities are replaceable if you know where to look, and if your team has the luxury of luring Ron Artest for the mid-level exception. Still, even after three series’ of solid play, Ron is still trying to prove himself. He’s still trying to escape from Trevor Ariza’s strangely large shadow.
It won’t be enough for Artest to simply be a part of a title team. Ariza is so well-respected for his L.A. tenure because when the Lakers needed him, he produced. When he found the ball in his hands in the final minutes of big games, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t just settle for playing good defense when the Lakers needed a crucial stop, he jumped the inbound pass and became the subject of playoff legends.
Reputations are a funny thing. Artest should have forged his by playing excellent defense on Kevin Durant in the first round, or by being part of the Laker team that so handily dismissed the Jazz in the second. Yet, despite of how valuable Artest has been in the postseason so far, he’ll have to prove himself as invaluable if he really wants to escape the Ariza comparisons.
A lot of that is dependent on circumstances, as Ariza was only allowed to succeed because Andrew Bynum was sidelined, Lamar Odom was invisible at times, and Pau Gasol/Kobe Bryant opened up shots for him. Artest is finally finding himself in similarly beneficial circumstances against the Suns, and he’s capitalizing.
When Bryant hits Artest in the corner out of a double team, Ron has to hit that shot or make a play. When Jason Richardson foolishly looks to break down Artest off the dribble, Ron has to step up and get a stop. Not necessarily because that’s the difference between a win or a loss in Game 2 (although it could have been, as Artest scored 18 and prevented plenty more by the Suns in a 12-point win), but because those plays will be essential in the future.
The Lakers have made it abundantly clear that although they’re respecting their opponents, even these games are not an end unto themselves. It’s important to perform against Phoenix, but the Western Conference Finals are a means to achieve the bigger goal. That’s where Artest will go from luxury to necessity. He may never reach Ariza’s ridiculous 47.6% mark from three in last year’s playoffs, but the farther the Lakers go in the playoffs, the more integral Artest becomes.
The versatility of the Lakers offense is proving too much for the Suns — it’s not just inside, it’s outside as well. The Lakers know it and know how to exploit it, while the Suns are searching for answers. And sounding dazed .
Kobe Bryant was the best passer on the floor during Game 2.
Yes, Steve Nash was still on the floor. And he is still Steve Nash. But Kobe was taking pages right out of the Nash playbook all night long — including one third-quarter play where he was dribbling near the top of the key, nobody rotated on to Pau Gasol after he set the screen then rolled to the hoop (Amare Stoudemire was losing him a lot in the second half) and Kobe did a one-handed, right-out-of-the-dribble pass to Gasol for the layup. It was the kind of pass Nash does better than anyone in the league. But not Wednesday night.
Nash’s gift is his court sense, his vision. When he probes into the paint — especially off the pick-and-roll — he draws help defenders coming to shut him off. Nash’s ability to recognize where the help came from then make the defense pay by hitting that helper’s man with a pass borders on the supernatural.
Kobe was supernatural himself in this one.
If you double-team, you are by definition leaving someone open. In the first half, the Suns sent their help off perimeter players — and Kobe had three assists to Ron Artest on three-pointers. (Artest was even hitting the left corner three, something that he was shooting just 31 percent in the playoffs coming in and Phil Jackson has asked him to take less of. But when they are falling….)
The Suns learned and adjusted. They stopped doubling from the wings in the second half, in fact they didn’t double as aggressively at all. The Lakers ran more pick-and-roll more, and when the Suns defense was slow to rotate help, Kobe picked that apart. He was pinpoint in his passes.
Kevin Arnovitz at TrueHoop breaks this all down in video form — go watch the video that should have general managers around the league debating how much they want to offer Stoudemire on the open market this summer. But those defensive lapses only matter if you can exploit them. And Kobe is a very good passer who can do just that.
After the Lakers’ dominant performance in Game 1, Alvin Gentry wisely noted that “[the Suns] can survive a Kobe game, but [they] can’t survive a Lamar game, and
then Pau playing extremely well, and then Jordan Farmar really coming
in and having a solid game and then Artest playing the way he is.”
He was right, in a sense. Gentry’s statement deserves clarification, though: the Suns can survive a big scoring game from Kobe, but not necessarily a big game from Kobe. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals could be Bryant’s best performance of the postseason so far, and he only scored 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The real gem in Kobe’s stat line was his 13-assist mark, and it was Bryant’s facilitation of a brilliant Laker offense that brought L.A. their eighth consecutive win.
Kobe’s 13 assists not only set a personal best for his playoff career, but according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, it was the highest assist total by any Laker since Magic Johnson matched the mark in 1997.
Of course, the immediate relevance of Kobe’s terrific performance is far more pressing than its historical context. It’s nice to know how this one game stacks up in comparison to Kobe’s other playoff performances and those of his fellow Lakers, but it’s far more crucial at this stage to understand and embrace just how much he helped his team to take a commanding 2-0 series lead last night.
The Suns are not a strong defensive team, regardless of their current reputation. That said, the most prominent story coming out of Game 2 should not be how Phoenix lost the game, but how Los Angeles won it. Stories of failure make for far more compelling theater, but in this case the Suns’ poor defense was only the catalyst for the loss. The Lakers, fueled by ball movement that was epitomized but not limited to Bryant’s assists, played like the elite offensive outfit that they are.
It’s a bit unfair that Bryant’s performance stole the show, especially considering how ridiculously effective Pau Gasol (29 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was in the fourth quarter. Gasol was a go-to option for the Lakers down the stretch, and though the Suns were within striking distance at points in the fourth, it was Pau’s scoring — not Bryant’s — that pushed Los Angeles over the top.
I think what makes Kobe’s night stand out amongst that of his teammates was how unique his playmaking was. A number of Lakers were productive scorers — Ron Artest finished with 18 points, Lamar Odom with 17, Andrew Bynum with 13, and Jordan Farmar with 11 — and all of them willing passers as well, but none of those contributors are in a position to defer.
Gasol was fantastic. He was put in a situation to succeed due to his skills, match-up, and circumstances, and he came through in flying colors. He’s still the second fiddle on this team though, and his dominance was by design. The Lakers (or more appropriately, Kobe) worked through Gasol with the game on the line, and he produced.
I know this all may seem like undue lavishing of an oft-praised star, but Kobe will always lie at the crux of what the Lakers hope to accomplish. In Game 2, he faced pressure but did anything but struggle. There will obviously be times between now and the end of the Lakers’ season where L.A. will need more than 21 points from Bryant to win, but his scoring in those situations is no more important than his willing deference in others.
That’s when Gasol will truly shine. It’s when Odom will go from from invisible to ever-present, and when Artest will command defensive attention. As the Celtics continue their quest to upset the Magic in the East, keep these Lakers at the back of your mind. They’re out for blood, championship-ready, and clicking both mentally and physically.