Lakers' 139-137 triple overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns a reminder that the Lakers are better suited as a defensive team
Rewind, fast forward, pause or freeze frame any highlight reel of the Lakers' 139-137 triple overtime victory Tuesday over the Phoenix Suns. Regardless of any clip you stumble upon, plenty of them will emerge that show the 18,997 at Staples Center waving yellow "Los Lakers" towels in a never-ending roller coaster ride.
There was excitement: Kobe Bryant's made a pull-up jumper over Channing Frye that clinched the victory. Ron Artest's somehow leapt for a one-handed dunk. And Lamar Odom provided enough coast-to-coast drives to leave him wanting to eat pancakes afterwards.
There was tension: Pau Gasol made two free throws forced triple overtime, Derek Fisher's hit two free throws to give the Lakers a three-point lead before Phoenix extended to double overtime. And Odom's foul that gave Frye three foul shots to force extra regulation left many biting their fingernails.
And there were theatrics: Bryant bit his jersey as if he forgot to eat his pregame meal. Artest blew kisses to the crowd, flexed his muscles and kissed his own biceps in a routine that left Odom arguing he should be a professional wrestler. And the team embraced after a well-fought victory, bringing a sentimental ending to the game, or soap opera for that matter.
One thing remained glaringly absent, however, during the three-hour and nine minute game: any semblance of defense. That's to be expected perhaps with the Phoenix Suns, who entered the contest allowing 105 points per game and favor an up-court style. When a game goes into multiple overtimes, it's inevitable the point-total will be much higher. And considering the Lakers' recent defensive track record since the All-Star break, things should return to normal.
Besides the entertainment value of a game that featured 11 ties, 10 lead changes and plenty of highlights, the Lakers' effort against Phoenix also served as a visual reminder why they're much more suited as a defensively deliberate team than another carbon-copy of the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks. Few things things remain fresh in Artest's mind, or at least many things that he's willing to recollect. But here's an exception: The Lakers' rise and fall between dominance, sluggish performances, continual inconsistency and sharp performances since the All-Star break directly correlates to the team's defensive identity, which allowed only 87 points per game since the break before its game with the Suns.
"Earlier our offense was good but our defense was not good," Artest said. "But we were winning. Then we got complacent. We were working hard defensively, but our complacency caught up to us. Midseason it caught up to us."
"We've been playing like the best defensive team in the league, No. 1," Artest said. "We're in sync with each other right now. Everybody is in sync."
Artest outlines the Lakers' season pretty succinctly. But here are the details.
The Lakers' 14-6 mark through the first 20 games featured an offense that appeared unstoppable, averaging a second-ranked 108.45 points per game. Bryant appeared as if his knee wasn't bothering him. Gasol's consistent efficiency showed he benefitted from a summer free of basketball. Odom's consistent efficiency demonstrated playing basketball in the FIBA World Championships helped sharpen his focus. And the bench's sharp play suggested things immediately clicked, including Steve Blake's offensive playmaking abilities, Shannon Brown's sharp shooting and Matt Barnes' ability to produce despite going through a learning curve with the triangle offense. Their sudden chemistry on offense permeated a mindset that the Lakers could sweep defensive lapses, such as poor communication, rotation and effort, by simply outscoring the opposition.
"We actually get in trouble when we play teams where we can score easily," Fisher said. That's out problem. We play certain teams where offensively we have an easy time scoring. Then defensively, we're not locked in."
That's why the Lakers weren't equipped with a defensive foundation once the offensive production dropped off with Gasol's heavy minutes during Andrew Bynum's rehab caught up to him, his inconsistency putting further pressure on Bryant to produce and the team's collective outside shooting dropping from 41.2% in November to 31% in December. That stretch coincided with the Lakers suffering two four-game losing streaks and lacking any signature wins against elite teams. Soon enough, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Chuck Person tweaked the defensive scheme, emphasizing the frontcourt to stay close to the basket instead of confronting the perimeter to help on screens. Instead, the Lakers' wing defenders man the perimeter, knowing any guards who beats them off the dribble or off a screen will immediately greet a post player by the basket.
The tweak came with mixed success simply because of the learning curve, but the team's improved execution and Bynum's continuous ownership with the responsibility has vastly changed the Lakers as a more defensive team.
"You know what to do you so you know where to put your energy into," said Bynum, who's averaged 13 rebounds and 2.58 blocks per game since the All-Star break before missing the past two contest because of a suspension for a recent flagrant foul. "You don't have to spend time thinking."
Neither does the team have to solely worry about outscoring the opponent, much like the Lakers did Tuesday against Phoenix. Some may point to the final score, the entertainment value and the talent level as arguments the Lakers can still resort to an offensive mindset should they choose. But their track record this season shows otherwise. Besides, it would be a bad formula for the Lakers to need three overtimes, every starter playing more than 40 minutes and 120 field-goal attempts to secure playoff victories.
Thank goodness the Lakers can rely on their defense.
E-maiil the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo: Phoenix center Robin Lopez, center, tries to put up a shot over Lakers forwards Lamar Odom, left, Pau Gasol, right center, and guard Kobe Bryant during the first half of Tuesday's game at Staples Center. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez / U.S. Presswire
Bottom photo: Phoenix guard Steve Nash, left, collides with Lakers guard Derek Fisher while shoveling off a pass during the first overtime of the Lakers' 139-137 triple-overtime victory Tuesday at Staples Center. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times