Phil Jackson told Paul Pierce this is the matchup he wanted. Kobe just sees another hurdle in his way. Alvin Gentry only sees Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash tries to see the future.
The Suns were right there. They were within striking distance, with plenty left in the tank, and thanks to a miracle three by Jason Richardson, had a real shot at forcing overtime and taking the decisive Game 5. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Ron Artest’s put-back crushed those hopes with a few bounces on the rim, but that doesn’t change where the Suns were and how they got there.
Or rather, who got them there. Steve Nash was absolutely magnificent in the fourth quarter, and he had a performance worthy of his MVP standing. Nash was responsible for 11 straight points prior to Richardson’s three-pointer, all products of his own creative efforts. These weren’t catch-and-shoot looks, but contested drives to the basket and pull-up opportunities that found nothing but net. Nash is just that good of a scorer when he wants to be, or in this case, when Phil Jackson wanted him to be.
Nash clearly didn’t shrink from the spotlight, and it was Steve’s efforts that put the Suns in a position to win Game 5. That said, the Laker defense switched on screens to better cover Amar’e Stoudemire on the roll, and stayed home on the Suns’ three-point shooters to avoid getting burned by the long-range game.
“They changed their defense tonight,” Nash said. “They switched more pick-and-rolls,
so [there were] more opportunities to isolate. So that’s really, again, we stick to
what we do and just try to read the defense and make the right play.
And tonight, since they changed, I tried to change.”
It worked…to an extent, as Stoudemire only had 19 points on 12 shots and the Suns were a merely average 33.3% (9-of-27) from three-point range. Nash, meanwhile, put up 20 field goal attempts, which was by far the high among the Suns and understandably so considering the game had relatively few possessions (90).
Had Ron Artest not leaped out of the shadows to grab the game-winning bucket, the Lakers’ defensive strategy on Nash would undoubtedly be considered part of their downfall. Steve was that good down the stretch.
There are a lot of distributors in this league that opposing coaches should seek to “make into a scorer,” as a means of halting ball and player movement. Nash doesn’t seem like he’d be such a player; Steve is one of the best shooters in the league (if not the very best), and he scores so efficiently that he can carry an offense if need be.
The only trouble is that history is Phil Jackson’s ally in this case. Nash’s game seems like it would be triumph over such a strategy (and in Game 5 it was, as Nash finished with 29 points on 60% shooting while still getting his 11 assists), but in playoff games where Steve has taken 20 or more attempts (including this one), the Suns are 3-8. Take away overtime games, and the Suns are 2-6 in such games. Stats like that aren’t necessarily fair after a game like this one, but it’s an interesting trend if nothing else.
Don’t misunderstand my meaning; this game’s result is not justification for the method. Nash very nearly won the game for the Suns, and with a few more free throw makes (Phoenix shot an unseemly 20-of-29 from the line), defensive stops, or rebounds, he probably would have. This one just went the other way, despite an awfully strong performance from one of the best point guards in the game.
The Phoenix Suns are quite possibly too likable. Whether in victory or defeat, the personalities are just too magnetic to draw any real ire. Even if you’re turned off by Amar’e’s (over)confidence, how could that negative possibly balance out the good vibrations coming from the rest of the roster?
If you think otherwise, watch this video that offers the scene in the Suns locker room after their Game 4 victory. Watch Grant Hill stopping to give as many high fives as possible to the kids waiting in the hallway, or the team’s celebration of the bench, or even the gentle heckling of Channing Frye and try to hate this team. Just try.
Let’s just be up front — Phoenix is not going to zone their way to a win tonight.
Oh, they can still win, but they will have to do it another way. They will have to maintain that aggression and quick decision making on offense. They will have to crash the boards hard again. They will need to slow the Lakers big men again, somehow.
But the zone, that isn’t going to work twice. There is a reason NBA teams don’t run a zone as their base defense — at this level teams have too many good a shooters from the outside for a zone to work long term, and they are often too big and strong inside for it to work.
But it did work against the Lakers when the Suns went to it in Game 3. It worked great for one quarter — the second, when the Lakers scored just 15 points and shot 35 percent overall and 17 percent from three. In the fourth quarter the Lakers kept going bombs away on the zone — Pau Gasol had one fourth-quarter shot while the Lakers took 11 threes.
But the Lakers know how to attack a zone, remember that in the first two games of this series the Lakers chewed up the Suns zone and spit it out quickly. Lakers bigs will flash to the free throw line get the ball while wing players will cut down the baseline, and the Suns defenders will have to pick their poison. The Lakers will also attack the zone with dribble penetration. Ron Artest will not be bombing threes like that again. Well, Phil Jackson hopes not.
For the Suns, they have to keep attacking like they did in Game 3. Steve Nash’s preferred mode is to come off the pick and then probe your defense until he finds a space he likes. The Lakers long arms took those spaces away for two games. In Game 3 it wasn’t just Amare Stoudemire who was more aggressive, it was Nash. He made quick decisions, often hitting Stoudemire rolling to the basket.
Amare went hard to the basket. The Suns also used Stoudemire — and a shockingly effective version of Robin Lopez — to isolate on Lakers big men and use their quickness. Both Suns bigs were very aggressive and effective, and they will need to be again. If the Lakers control the paint, they will control the game.
The Suns problems this series have not been scoring, it has been on the defensive end. They solved that problem for one game, but they are going to need to find a new way to solve it in Game 4, because the old zone gimmick is not going to work. If the Suns can’t figure it out, well, bet the over because this one will be fun to watch. But it also will be coming back to Los Angeles with a chance for the Lakers to close it out.
Of all the words spent discussing, analyzing, explaining, and picking apart Lakers-Suns, a good number of them have concerned Channing Frye. The Suns’ bench on the whole has had their moments, but Frye is the one reserve that has yet to really contribute with his most valuable skill: shooting. Channing has made just one of his 20 shot attempts in this series, and has averaged just 1.3 points in 15.4 minutes per game.
So naturally, after seeing how much of a positive influence Frye’s three-point shooting can be on the Suns’ offense in the regular season and the two prior playoff series, fans and writers have been a bit critical of Channing’s performance over the last three games. It’s hard to shield him from any of it; 1-for-20 is impressively awful, especially considering the Lakers’ blatant disregard of the “threat” of Frye’s shooting on the pick-and-roll. It’s gotten to the point where L.A.’s defenders often give Channing plenty of room to fire, and he still can’t connect.
Apparently, Channing has had enough of it. Here’s a quote from Frye via Ken Berger of CBS Sports:
“You know what guys, to be honest I’m kind of disappointed,” Frye
said. “First you said we couldn’t beat them and now you’re talking
about a lot of negativity. I think we need to look at how well Robin
[Lopez] is playing, how well Amar’e [Stoudemire] is playing. My baskets
– yeah, they would’ve helped. Yeah, I haven’t been shooting very well.
But I feel like I’m doing other things better, helping out defensively
and getting as many boards as I can. So for you guys to talk about me
shooting, that’s kind of – there’s better stories to write about than
Berger’s response was the perfect one: “With all due respect, that’s for me to decide. Your job is to make shots.” Zing!
Frye clearly underestimates the consumption rate of available NBA content in print and online, especially during the NBA playoffs. Of course people are writing on Amar’e’s huge Game 3 performance or Robin Lopez’s fantastic play. Those angles are covered, covered, and covered again. That may provide an interesting morsel, but it doesn’t give the whole story of Game 3 or any other, and that’s where Frye comes in.
Every player making a significant impact on the game deserves this kind of treatment, and throwing up 19 errant shots out of 20 certainly qualifies. His justifications also come off as a bit defensive, especially when considering that his rebounding really hasn’t been above average and his defense far from notable. I’m sure Frye is trying to make his mark on this series, he’s just not doing it. That’s the story.
This isn’t an issue of effort, but one of execution. A hot shooter has gone deathly cold, and Phoenix’s number of productive bench players has dropped from five to four.