Lakers' teamwork serves as biggest threat in 124-112 Game 2 victory over Phoenix Suns
The Lakers entered the Western Conference Finals wanting to play at a deliberate pace against Phoenix, fearful that a fast-paced style would only result in the Lakers trailing. But the Lakers still managed a high-scoring 124-112 Game 2 Western Conference Finals victory over the Phoenix Suns because the team's versatile offense made it too overwhelming for the defenseless Suns.
Want to double Kobe Bryant? Fine. He may not score 40 points like he did in Game 1. But he'll still score 21, drop a playoff-career high 13 dimes (the highest playoff assists total for a Lakers since Magic Johnson in Game 3 of 1996 first round series against the Houston Rockets), making the strategy somewhat pointless. As Bryant said, "It's my responsibility and Pau's responsibility to make the defense have to do something. If they play straight-up single coverage, then we've got to go to work. That's our responsibility to do that. And then once the defense adjusts, it's our responsibility to make the right play."
Want to bank on Andrew Bynum's limitation because of the increased swelling in his lateral meniscus tear? Fine. He may only play 18 minutes, partly because of Phil Jackson's acknowledgement that he wants to ensure maximum health should the Lakers advance to the NBA Finals, partly because he picked up four fouls and partly because of Jackson's concern on how Bynum can play against the Sun's screen-and-roll. But Bynum will still score 13 points on five of five shooting, and then allow others to fill the gap, including Pau Gasol (29 points on 11 of 19 shooting) and Lamar Odom (17 points on seven of 10 shooting and 11 rebounds). As Odom said, "We pass the ball well as a team. I think that’s the best thing we can do. It gets everybody going. Nobody on our team is an offensive liability and you can't leave anyone open because the’ll get going."
Want to believe the Lakers won't get it going from the outside? Fine. It's a fair point considering the Lakers had a spotty track record this season in that category. But when those shots fall, it makes the defensive adjustments even more difficult to make. You can leave Ron Artest open all you want and assume he won't make them. But when he pulls up for 18 points on six of nine shooting and three of six from three-point range, you should probably start taking him seriously. But that just makes your defense even more vulnerable. As Gasol said, "That's always a plus because then they don't really know what to do."
Want to bank on your chances by entering the fourth quarter with the game tied at 90-90? Fine. You still have a chance. But when Jordan Farmar makes a three-pointer from the near-side, steals Gordan Dragic's pass, and Gasol and Odom convert on a layup within a matter of three minutes, the game will eventually get out of reach. As Bryant said of Farmar's key plays that contributed to his 11 points, "That changed the momentum of the game. Up until that point they had all the momentum. And he single handedly was responsible for changing that at the start of the fourth." You could probably also add Gasol's 14 fourth-quarter points, including 10 in the final 5:46 of the game, a strategy that worked against a defenseless Amare Stoudemire.
Said Gasol: "Once I was being effective in finishing plays, obviously you just continue to go to it because it was working pretty well for us."
Of course, the Lakers playing this defense-free game likely won't cut it in Game 3 against Phoenix. And it certainly won't cut it should the Lakers meet a more defensive-imposing team in Boston in the NBA Finals.
"All teams have their identity," Odom said. "When you play in the playoffs, teams play different. Every series that you move on, there are adjustments you have to make. Our depth and our size and quickness gives us an advantage that can pretty much match with any team in the NBA."
And in Game 2, the Lakers showcased why it's nearly impossible to stop them offensively if everyone's working together.
Bryant directs the offenseAfter Bryant scored 40 points in Game 1 and marked the sixth consecutive game he scored at least 30 points, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson anticipated Phoenix would double team him much like it did with Portland's Brandon Roy in the first round. The Suns did more than that. They doubled him, they zoned him and they switched up defensive assignments, ranging from Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, Jason Richardson and Robin Lopez.
But Bryant illustrated why he's both a scorer and facilitator, two descriptions that some use to pigeon hole Bryant when in fact he's both. He went to the elbows and hit open jumpers. He fed entry passes on the block to Gasol, who easily converted turnaround jumpers and close looks at the basket. When the Suns doubled Bryant on the perimeter before he took a dribble in the second quarter, he fed the ball up top to Shannon Brown, who swung the ball to an open Farmar for the three-pointer. When Richardson trapped Bryant in the lane on one play, Bryant fired a pass in the corner to Artest, who nailed the open three-pointer.
Said Bryant: "It makes the game a lot easier, obviously, to have a big that can catch, complete, make plays."
Bryant illustrated that perfectly in two particular plays. With the Lakers leading 95-93, Bryant directed the offense from the nearside. He drove the lane, met a double team and then found Odom backdoor because of a lazy Stoudemire. In a split second, Bryant shifted from looking to score to making the pass. Odom converted on the easy layup and gave the Lakers a 97-93 lead with 9:14 remaining in the game. Minutes later, Bryant looked to score again but then found Gasol open in the lane. Gasol converted on the basket, causing Bryant to pump his fist, Gasol to point at Bryant and the two embracing each other afterwards. It truly symbolized how the co-dependency between Bryant and Gasol maximizes their own effectiveness. Gasol's contributions can't be credited enough, particularly because he's scored at least 20 points six of the past eight games. But there's many times other parts of the offense haven' carried the same consistency. In Game 2, that wasn't the case, with Bryant's presence helping set the tone.
"There's so many things he can go to," Odom said. "He's prerty much unstoppable."
Odom proves his game goes beyond luck
After Stoudemire described Odom's 19 point and 19-rebound effort in Game 1 as a "lucky game," Odom refused to participate in the back-and-forth, insisting he just wanted to focus on the game.
Well, his game clearly revealed he's far from just being lucky, with his 17 points on five of seven shooting along with 11 rebounds marking his second consecutive double double. When Derek Fisher missed a fast-break layup, Odom trailed right behind for the putback, giving the Lakers a 17-13 lead with 6:03 left in the first. When Gasol caught an entry pass on the far block, Odom drove the lane, received a pass and converted on a reverse layup for the Lakers' 33-24 lead with 36.4 seconds remaining. Later in the fourth quarter, many plays illustrated his versatile skills set. He grabbed an offensive board and drew Dudley's sixth foul. He fed an entry pass to a wide-open Gasol for the easy score. And he posterized Stoudemire.
Odom didn't need to fire back at Stoudemire after the game. He already answered with his play on the court.
"It's not about me and Amare," Odom said. "I play for the Lakers. He plays for the Suns. That’s what its about. Tonight, I was able to perform and do well and we got the win."
Artest turns a switch
Artest arrived at Staples Center two hours early to work on his jump shots, a custom he says dates back to when he played with the Sacramento Kings from 2006-2008. For someone who has struggled finding his rhythm for most of the season, he wanted to find an edge and likened the routine's importance to perhaps other routines in life.
"Sometimes you sleep on the left side of the bed, but sometimes you sleep on the right," said Artest, who had recently removed his tape from his hands. "You sleep on the right instead of the left and your whole day gets messed up. I just want to sleep on the left side of the bed."
Well for the second consecutive game, Artest's shooting has returned. Jackson didn't take anything definitive from his 14 points on six of 14 shooting in Game 1. But after Game 2, Jackson expressed different sentiments, although they remained mild.
"He's working on it," Jackson said. "He's taking the shots are there."
Artest's teammates expressed more support with Bryant saying, "it was just getting his rhythm and settling in. Odom added, "I know his resistant personality and persistenace he has. You know hes going to get going. He's just that good."
Artest's performance went beyond his shooting stroke. He also appeared more involved and understanding with the offense. He connected with Gasol on a fastbreak, penetrated the lane inside and even converted on corner three-pointers, usually a shot Jackson doesn't want Artest to take given his track record.
Nonetheless, Artest's confidence and stubborn attitude may have exacerbated his poor shooting numbers, but it also served as the same reason why he managed to get out of his slump.
I'm not really worried about it," Artest said. "I always fel good. Even when I was going one for 10, I was telling you I felt good. I always feel good."
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Photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol tries to work his way to the basket past Phoenix guard Steve Nash, center, and forward Amare Stoudemire during Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is tripped by Phoenix forward Grant Hill during the first half of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Credit: Phoenix forward Jared Dudley dribbles past Lakers forward Lamar Odom during the first half of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Photo: A fan celebrates after Lakers forward Ron Artest beats Phoenix guard Jason Richardson, right, to make a three-pointer at the end of the first quarter during Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times