Lakers don't counter Phoenix's adjustments in 118-109 Game 3 loss to Suns
The Lakers pledged to carry the momentum into Game 3 of their Western Conference finals series against Phoenix and not waste any time in putting the Suns away. Instead, the Lakers found themselves unable to duplicate the same balance and lost, 118-109, Sunday to the Suns, which snapped the team's eight-game winning streak.
The Lakers adjusted beautifully to the numerous matchups, double teams and zone defense Phoenix presented in Game 2. But in Game 3, the Lakers couldn't showcase their numerous offensive options against the Suns' zone defense beginning in the second quarter.
The Lakers spent the first two games exposing Amare Stoudemire's shoddy defensive effort, an area that came under intense scrutiny following his comments that Lamar Odom had a "lucky game" in the Lakers' Game 1 victory. This time around, Stoudemire exposed the Lakers' flimsy defensive performance with a team-leading 42-point performance on 14-of-22 shooting and a 14-of-18 showing from the free-throw line. That performance coincided with Odom's disappearing act: 10 points on four-of-14 shooting, six rebounds and six fouls; far from the two double-doubles he produced in Games 1 and 2.
As a result, the Suns cut the Lakers' lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1, forced a Game 5 at Staples Center on Thursday and showed they're not just going to allow the Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals matchup to happen, at least not easily. I had predicted before the series started that the Lakers would beat the Suns in five games, meaning the Suns' Game 3 victory serves as hardly a surprise. But I admitted in the game chat that given the Lakers' complete dominance against Phoenix in the first two games that the Lakers were capable of sweeping this series. That didn't happen, and now the Lakers enter Game 4 on Tuesday knowing there's plenty of adjustments they'll need to make to counter the ones the Suns showed in Game 3.
Sure, the Lakers provided some of the theatrics fans are accustomed to seeing. Kobe Bryant continued to remain a triple threat and nearly recorded his first playoff triple-double with 36 points on 13-of-24 shooting from the field and an eight-of-eight finish at the free-throw line, 11 assists and nine rebounds. But Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry had maintained all series he didn't have concerns with Bryant's scoring spree so long as it doesn't trickle down to other players. That made Bryant's seventh 30-point-plus performance in the last eight games that consisted of quality pull-up jumpers and timely passes to Pau Gasol all but pointless to a player that did everything he needed to do in Game 3 with exception of going two of eight from three-point range. Gasol scored 23 points, marking the sixth time in the last seven games he's dropped at least 20. But the power forward, who made 11 field goals, took only 14 shots, clearly showing the Lakers didn't do a good enough job in getting the ball inside. And with Andrew Bynum collecting more fouls (four) than points (two) and Odom collecting as many fouls (six) as boards (six), Phoenix managed to effectively neutralize the Lakers' inside presence with only 44 points in the paint.
Lakers guard Derek Fisher picked up his strong shooting after being quiet offensively in the first two games, scoring 18 points on six-of-11 shooting and a three-of-six mark from three-point range, including two three-pointers in the third quarter that delayed the Suns' run. But with the Suns playing zone, the Lakers took the bait and shot a playoff-record 32 three-pointers, making only nine of them, including a streaky Ron Artest, who had 12 points on four-of-13 shooting, two of seven from three-point range.
Lakers fans might point to the free-throw disparity with Phoenix going 37 of 42 from the line and the Lakers going only 16 of 20. But that disparity mostly rooted in the Suns attacking the basket, while the Lakers settled for outside shots. It served as a microcosm of the game in which the Lakers didn't respond to the Suns' adjustments, much like they managed to do in Game 2.
The Lakers may had been impressed with the Lakers' bench performance in the first two games, but the only highlight from that unit came when Shannon Brown dunked from Bynum's missed free-throw to give the Lakers a 36-29 cushion with 11:44 remaining.
But the Lakers mostly featured plenty of breakdowns, plagued by foul trouble, poor transition defense and late-game miscues.
The foul trouble: After Stoudemire pretended to run a screen and roll on Fisher for Suns guard Steve Nash, he drove to the lane while Gasol stayed on the perimeter. When Stoudemire received the ball in the lane and converted on a three-point play with 9:08 remaining in the first quarter, Bynum picked up his second foul and the Suns tied the score at 9-9. In the third quarter, Stoudemire picked up a pass on the left block, drove left and drew Bynum's third foul, with the runner and free throw giving the Suns a 58-52 cushion with 10:40 left. After the Lakers came off a timeout trailing 98-92 with 6:56 remaining, Odom drove the lane and was called for a charge, and the Lakers wouldn't hit a field goal until four minutes later.
The poor transition defense: After Fisher missed a three-pointer, Nash ran the break and found Jason Richardson open for a near-side three from the corner. The Suns cashed in on transition and took a 27-22 lead with 3:59 left in the first quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Artest kicked the ball out to Bryant, but the ball sailed over his head. Bryant saved the ball from going out of bounds, but Phoenix recovered and ran a break that resulted in Richardson making a corner three, which appeared to seal the deal by giving Phoenix a 98-92 cushion with 6:58 remaining.
The defensive breakdowns: Fast forward to the second quarter and you have Nash and Stoudemire running the pick and roll again, with Odom failing to pick up Stoudemire in the lane, resulting in the Suns tying the score at 45-45 with 3:29 remaining after going on a 6-0 run. Stoudemire also beat the Lakers individually, using a quick jab step to throw off Gasol before driving the baseline for a reverse layup, giving the Suns an 88-86 lead with 11:08 remaining in the game.
The aforementioned breakdowns shouldn't cause Laker fans to panic. It just means the team needs to properly adjust. But they must do it immediately in Game 4 instead of allowing Phoenix to carry the momentum and confidence when they head back to Staples Center on Thursday for Game 5. By that point, it'd be in the Lakers' best interest to have that game serve as the series-clincher instead of another tightly contested in an extended series.
Credit: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol is fouled by Suns forward Grant Hill in the first half of Game 3 on Sunday in Phoenix. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times