Gregg Popovich touted the Suns improved defense. Everyone was talking about it. That’s how they were finally going to get over the hump — be just good enough on defense to go with an amazing offense.
The Lakers blew that defense up.
They blew right by it from the perimeter and right into the heart of the Suns defense. The Lakers drove the ball right down the middle — literally, slashing down the center and into the paint all night long. It was the heart of their surprisingly easy 128-107 win.
“To be honest with you guys, it wasn’t exactly the post up plays and big guys,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said of the 56 points in the paint the Suns surrendered. “It was the middle drives and perimeter players driving in the paint.”
Everyone expected the Lakers to pound the Suns inside but it was how they did it that was the surprise.
“They were denying, they were denying everywhere,” Shannon Brown said of how the Suns tried to cut off post entry passes from the Lakers. “(Middle drives) is what they were giving us, so we had to take advantage of what they was giving us. There were denying a lot of our entry passes which left the middle wide open for us.”
Gentry went so far as to say the Suns could have lived with what Gasol did. They could have even lived with most of Kobe’s 40 — when his jumper is falling like that there’s nothing you can do. But when Kobe and Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown and even Odom are driving middle right into the heart of the Suns defense, everything breaks down.
“Our strategy is no middle drives,” Amare Stoudemire said. “That’s our strategy, we’ve got to do a better job.”
The Suns to a man talked about stopping those drives. That may be easier said than done — Grant Hill had trouble staying in front of Kobe, and Steve Nash is not exactly a defensive force.
But they can guide players to help. Gentry talked about pushing the Lakers more baseline, taking away the easy shots in the middle. Jared Dudley also said it was simply a matter of Suns players taking responsibility.
“It’s an adjustment (you make) watching film,” Dudley said. “You watch film and you say ‘you can’t have that.’ In the triangle they have to (be forced to) drive baseline. That’s not something that coach can tell you, just as a player you have to take that on yourself.”
For the Lakers, that means making the counter adjustment.
“If they adjust then we just hit our other options,” Brown said. “I’m sure they want to adjust but I know they still want to be aggressive on us. They’re going to take away the first pass, I don’t know about the second and third passes, but they’re gonna still be up, we just got to read the defense.”
The chess match has begun, but we don’t get to see the next moves until Wednesday.