Dissecting how Phoenix's zone defense befuddled the Lakers in 118-109 Game 3 loss to Suns
Frustrated with how Phoenix's numerous defensive adjustments in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals did little to prevent the Lakers from scoring, Suns Coach Alvin Gentry jokingly asked reporters after the game for any suggestions heading into Game 3.
The Suns ran a zone in Saturday's practice with poor execution, leading Gentry to wonder whether Phoenix should skip that defensive strategy in Game 3. Still, the Suns stuck with the plan.
The results were positive and immediate when Phoenix instituted a zone at the beginning of the second quarter. The Lakers scored only 15 points in 12 minutes. They attempted a playoff-record 32 three-pointers, making only nine of them. Lakers forward Pau Gasol shot just one field goal in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers heaved 11 three-pointers, four of them from Lakers forward Ron Artest.
Most NBA teams aren't used to playing against a zone defense, which didn't become legal until the 2001-02 season. The Lakers' discomfort with the Suns' zone defense was evident both on the stat sheet and in their on-court play. Consider the discrepancy between the Suns' defense in the first two playoff rounds compared with their first two games against the Lakers, including total points (95.9, 126), defensive field-goal percentage (45%, 58%), defensive three-point field-goal percentage (37%, 52%), points allowed in the paint (37.8, 54). Following is a breakdown of some of the Lakers' missed shots, which shows how much difficulty the team had matching up against the zone.
Second quarter, 11:31 - 11:15
The Sun's switch to a 2-3 zone may have surprised the Lakers, but they reacted on the first play the right way. One of the keys to playing against a zone involves making quick passes around the perimeter to test how quickly the defense shifts, a tactic the Lakers executed perfectly. Artest passed the ball up top to Jordan Farmar, who quickly passed to Lamar Odom on the nearside perimeter. Lakers center Andrew Bynum posted up on the near block against Phoenix forward Channing Frye, but Odom looked the other way toward Farmar at the top of the key. Since Bynum didn't get the look, he flashed toward the basket while Odom flashed across the lane and then cut out to the right block. Odom received the ball, Suns forward Louis Amundson confronted Odom and he attempted a 20-foot jumper. The shot rimmed out.
Second quarter, 10:42 - 10:37
Phoenix played in a 3-2 zone, with Amundson and Frye clogging the lane and preventing Bynum from getting good post position. With Farmar receiving a pass on the far corner, Phoenix forward Jared Dudley shifted from the top to the corner. Meanwhile, Odom remained open on the nearside since Suns guard Goran Dragic mistakenly stayed up top instead of spreading himself to cover the nearside of the court. Dragic quickly recovered, however, as Farmar pump faked and then dribbled in for a pull-up jumper. The shot hit off the side rim.
Second quarter, 9:39 - 9:33
With Farmar manning the point on the far side, Artest cut to the free-throw line and received a pass just above the stripe. Phoenix played in a 2-3 zone, with Amundson and Leandro Barbosa double teaming Artest by the right block. Artest dribbled left and pulled up for a quick jumper, despite Farmar being open on the nearside and Odom and Bynum trying to establish position in the post. Instead of settling for the quick shot, Artest could have passed the ball to Farmar to force the defense to shift and, perhaps, allow either Bynum or Odom to position themselves in the lane.
Second quarter, 9:02 - 8:52
This sequence demonstrates Phoenix's ability to play a 2-3 matchup zone perfectly. Lakers guard Shannon Brown drove to the lane, but Dragic immediately cut him off. With Phoenix spread on the floor, Brown made a quick pass to Farmar on the nearside perimeter before making another quick pass to Odom on the corner. Odom looked to make an entry pass to Gasol in the post, but both Amare Stoudemire and Dudley both marked on Gasol. So the ball got passed around the perimeter again, going from Odom to Farmar and then up top to Brown. With the shot clock down to six seconds, Brown hoisted a 26-foot three-pointer, which ultimately hit the back of the rim.
Second quarter, 4:24 - 4:18
After Odom cut through the lane to the far corner, he received a pass from Artest. Suns center Robin Lopez stopped a passive Gasol from posting in the lane, and Odom hoisted three over Stoudemire went off the back iron.
Second quarter, 3:48 - 3:38
Lopez swiped Kobe Bryant's pass to Gasol on the left block, forcing Bryant to pick up the loose ball near the time line. With only four seconds remaining on the shot clock, Bryant attempted a three-pointer, but it hit the back iron.
Third quarter, 5:57 - 5:50
After Odom passed the ball to Bryant just above the far perimeter, Bryant drove and posted up on Jason Richardson near the free-throw line. With Steve Nash helping on the double team, Bryant kicked the ball out to Odom, whose open three-pointer went off the rim. Gasol stood idly in the lane against Lopez instead of trying to post up inside.
Fourth quarter, 5:53 - 5:39
This play illustrates how quickly the Suns shifted in their 2-3 zone, while also denying Gasol space in the post. After Odom passed the ball to Artest on the far end, Grant Hill, Richardson and Nash shifted left, with Hill extended far out on the wing so he could mark Derek Fisher in the far corner. Artest quickly sent the ball back up top to Odom, and the Suns shifted immediately, with Richardson and Nash confronting Odom and Hill flashing toward Artest as Odom made another pass to him. After Odom received a pass just above the key, Richardson and Nash swarmed him, causing Odom to pass to Bryant on the nearside. Meanwhile, Gasol had trouble positioning himself against Lopez inside. Once Bryant received the ball, Stoudemire extended himself on the wing, while Nash shifted in Bryant's direction. Bryant immediately drove the lane, pump faked and weaved in for a pull-up jumper. But the shot hit the back rim.
What this means
Chalk it up, perhaps, to the fact that I went to Syracuse and greatly appreciated how well Jim Boeheim ran the 2-3 zone with his program. But I cringe when I hear the assertion that teams that play zone aren't sound defensively and use it to cover up their vulnerabilities. No doubt, the Suns made plenty of defensive adjustments in Game 2, including switching defensive matchups, double teams, zone and playing the post, all to no avail because the Lakers had too many options. But the above plays illustrate why Phoenix's zone worked in Game 3 against the Lakers: It was how active the Suns ran the set. They shifted immediately anytime the Lakers made a pass. They mostly disallowed the Lakers' front line from penetrating in the lane. And they mostly forced the Lakers to settle for quick shots, many of which didn't go in because the Lakers lacked rhythm.
Clearly, the Lakers didn't make the necessary adjustments in attacking the zone both through drives and posting up. They responded soundly by making quick passes around the perimeter to expose gaps in the Suns' zone, but that often went nowhere since Phoenix immediately shifted. The Lakers have the talent to make the necessary adjustments in Game 4. But it all comes down to execution, something the Lakers sorely lacked in Game 3.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and power forward Pau Gasol talk during a break in play against Phoenix on Sunday in Game 3. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times