Zoned-Out Lakers Will Outshine Suns
PHOENIX -- They'll still win it. They'll escape these Western Conference finals to defend their world championship in the NBA Finals. That's because the lesser of the two opponents for the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment are the Phoenix Suns.
The Lakers' biggest opponent?
What a mess. I mean, in the midst of the playoffs, the Lakers have usually mellow owner Jerry Buss turning into a 1970ish George Steinbrenner by suggesting that coach Phil Jackson might have to take a pay cut despite his 10 world championships rings.
The Lakers also have Jackson in news conferences denying -- well, sort of -- that he will return to the Chicago Bulls after this season or that he may cause the world to spin backwards by joining the New Jersey Nets or another NBA team with an opening and lots of bucks.
Then, the Lakers have a roster that suddenly looks so much like Kobe Bryant and a bunch of other guys.
Sometimes, those other guys are impressive, with 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dominating the post. And, sometimes, those other guys feature Derek Fisher forgetting that he is 35 years old, and Ron Artest staying away from nutting up, and Lamar Odom matching potential with reality as a standout from the bench.
Other times, well, there was Tuesday night.
"We lost the game because our defense sucked," said Bryant, grinding enamel from his clenched teeth after the Lakers' 115-106 defeat in Game 4 at US Airways Arena to tie the series at 2-2.
Added Jackson, taking a break from teasing the world about his future employer, retirement or whatever else, "I thought we were standing around watching (Tuesday night). That's what I said to them. We're not actively defending sequences that we know we have to defend. And, you know, some of it is our anticipation. Some of it is not being ready."
It's all fixable. It will be fixed by the time the Lakers meet the Suns Thursday night at Staples Center for Game 5.
For one, Jackson didn't win those rings, because he couldn't adjust. For another, the Lakers are the Tina Turners of basketball, because they don't like to do things nice and easy (see their first-round stroll against Oklahoma City that they turned into sprint).
For another, the Lakers have Kobe, and the Suns don't.
With apologies to LeBron and Dwyane, Kobe remains the league's most potent player when healthy, and he is more whole from back to finger to ankle now than he has been the entire season. He managed 38 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in Game 4, but this was one of those times when those other L.A. guys vanished.
The Suns' bench outscored that of the Lakers, 54-20. There also were so many that the Suns scored from outside or inside without the hint of somebody wearing purple and gold in the vicinity.
We haven't even mentioned that zone thing. The Lakers hadn't a clue against it for a second straight game -- which, not coincidentally -- were both losses.
But you know what? Instead of winning this series in four or five games, the Lakers will do so in six or seven. Hey, losses just happen for the Lakers when they dribble around here, because they obviously aren't into the sun during the postseason.
Not this kind of sun.
As in the Valley of the Sun, where the Lakers have a tendency to be rather ordinary or worse come late spring. They've dropped nine of their last 10 playoff games in Phoenix.
The thing is, two of the next three games in what potentially could be a seven-game series would take place in Los Angeles. In case you're wondering, since the Lakers moved into the Staples Center before the 1999-2000 season, they've won 84 percent of their home playoff games.
Consider, too, that the Suns' recent streak was a product of their orange, packed and loud arena filled with the endless pounding of thunder sticks and screams of "Beat LA."
All of that hometown energy helped Channing Frye rise from the dead off the bench on Tuesday night to sink four of the Suns' 11 3-pointers with several of them contributing to an 18-3 run in the fourth quarter to put the Lakers away. Plus, that hometown energy also helped the Suns become "a little more aggressive on the boards, and I think that created an atmosphere that I didn't like in the ball game," said Jackson, referring to the Suns outrebounding the taller Lakers, 51-36.
The Lakers' rebounding issues are fixable, too. The same goes for their issues against the Suns' 2-3 zone, a rarity in the NBA since the league approved the use of such defenses barely a decade ago.
I asked Odom when was the last time he has seen this much zone?
"High school," he said, straight-faced. This isn't to say the Lakers eventually won't adjust to the thing. They will. Added Odom, "It slows us down and stops us from getting the ball inside, but we have to be patient, and play like we're in the eighth and ninth grade again."
See, there's another reason to stick with the Lakers.
They remain pleasantly cocky.