Who's 'Girlie' Now? Certainly Not Suns
PHOENIX -- Uh, before critics denounce the NBA postseason as boring, might they consider that the defending champions are two losses from elimination? And before Phil Jackson is mentioned for every job vacancy but the California governor's seat, shouldn't he ask himself a question: If he's so great, why is his team still riddled by the 2-3 matchup zone defense of the Phoenix Suns, the one derided as "girlie" and soft? And before the ever-opinionated President of the United States hands another championship trophy to the Los Angeles Lakers, shouldn't he acknowledge the existence of a hot team in the desert?
"BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!" they chanted Tuesday night outside U.S. Airways Arena, loud enough to drown out the "WE WANT BOSTON! WE WANT BOSTON!" chants in Staples Center last week. Before the Lakers can think about a potential rematch with the Celtics in the Finals, they'd better address quickly why they were embarrassed by the Suns' second unit and why they've fallen out of sync against the zone of Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who doesn't even like using it but knows it's the best way to discombobulate the high-potency Lakers. Before Game 4 of these Western Conference finals, Jackson pointed out that the zone rarely has been used in the NBA since it was adopted as legal in 2001 -- "and never in a playoff game." It was his way of chiding the strategy as desperate, and his thoughts were echoed by Kobe Bryant, who turned to sarcasm when asked if the zone could be deciphered, saying, "No, we're doomed."
Whether the Lakers are doomed won't be known until later this week. But they certainly are nervous after the Suns, left for dead after two uninspired losses in L.A., evened the series at 2-2 with a 115-106 victory. Bryant says the only time he has panicked in his career is "when my shorts fell down, because they were too big." But something was amiss in the fourth quarter when Bryant -- described by Gentry as "the best player that ever played the game," which might interest Michael Jordan -- shot only once in the first nine minutes. When Pau Gasol also managed only one shot in that period, the only conclusion is that the Lakers have been rattled offensively by the zone, which is some achievement by the Suns after allowing 252 points in the first two games. The Lakers simply are taking too many three-pointers, firing up 28 more and making just nine. And they aren't swinging the ball around the zone and finding Bryant, who often stood waving for the ball in the final minutes after exploding for 31 points in the second and third quarters.
But the offense, believe it or not, isn't the biggest problem. "We didn't lose this game because of that. We lost the game because our defense sucked," said an ornery Bryant, who ended with 38 points but didn't have much help. "We have to do a much better job of paying attention to all their guys, staying in front of them. We've got to get back to the basics of playing defense the right way, because that's what wins championships. Everyone wants to talk about the offense, but that has nothing to do with it. We've got to defend. When the shot goes up, you've got to get your ass back."