Suns Learn That Beating Lakers Doesn't Mean Stopping Kobe
PHOENIX -- Former NBA guard Ruben Patterson once dubbed himself the "Kobe Stopper.'' Many laughed about that boast, including Bryant, and Patterson was out of the league by age 32.
Nobody can stop the Lakers guard with any degree of regularity, and the Phoenix Suns know that. But they have become more at peace with that as the Western Conference finals have moved along, and now fully realize they can beat the Lakers even when Bryant comes up very big.
"We just weren't going to put all our effort on trying to stop Kobe,'' Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after practice Wednesday. "Nobody's done it in 14 years so it's ridiculous to think, 'OK, this is the way we'll stop him.' ... Stopping Kobe is not an option.''
In Games 1 and 2 of the series, Bryant averaged 30.5 points and 9.0 assists, and the Lakers won them both.
In Games 3 and 4, Bryant was even better, averaging 37.0 points and 10.5. But, guess what, the Lakers lost both games.
True, the Suns' wins in the last two games were at home, enabling them to tie the series 2-2 entering Thursday night's pivotal Game 5 in Los Angeles. But the Suns still have learned a lot about dealing with Bryant as the series has progressed.
They're learning not to get too bent out of shape when he's filling up the box score. They're finding out they can survive such outings if too many other Lakers aren't coming up big. And they recognize even more the importance of from where Bryant shoots.
The Suns played primarily man-to-man defense in the first two games and primarily zone in the next two. While Bryant has scored plenty against both defenses, more of his field-goal attempts against the zone have come from the outside.
"Whether we play man or zone, he's still managed to put up big numbers,'' said Suns forward Grant Hill, the man most responsible for checking Bryant in the series. "The key is limiting everybody else, and the zone, what that does is it prevents the post-ups. ... It really forces them to take more jump shots than they want to take.
"Our big thing, the thing we've talked about, is not to get discouraged when (Bryant) plays well and scores. Even (Tuesday) when he was hitting shots (Bryant totaled 38 and 10 assists in Phoenix's 115-106 win in Game 4), we weren't discouraged. ... We got to continue to make him work and make tough shots, and hopefully he'll start to miss some. But the job we do on everybody else is really important.''
The Suns figure Bryant, who shot 6 of 9 from three-point range in Game 4, can take all the outside shots he wants. Even if they're going in, with the ball not going inside as much, the Suns figure to stay more out of foul trouble and not put the Lakers on the line as much.
Bryant didn't get as much help as the Lakers ideally would want in Game 4. No other Lakers player scored more than 15 points and no guy in purple not named Bryant had more than three assists.
But Bryant brushed off a suggestion he needed more help offensively.
"That's not what wins championships,'' he said. "Everybody wants to talk about the offensive side of the ball. It has nothing to with it. Got to defend.''
Lakers coached Phil Jackson, perhaps not wanting to admit Phoenix's zone has ruffled his team a bit, said he's got "no problem with our offense at all,'' and the trouble is on the defensive end. Still, after shooting 57.8 percent the first two games, the Lakers dropped to 49.3 percent in the next two.
That's still solid. But it's enough of a drop for the Suns to noticeably get more rebounds to aid their fast break.
As for Bryant's game, there might not be a lot more he can do in this series. He's averaging 33.8 points, 9.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 56.3 percent.
"Sometimes you just can't stop Kobe,'' said Phoenix guard Steve Nash. "So we can't get discouraged. He's playing as well maybe as he's ever played now. And he may continue to do that. But we've proved that we can win when he plays great.''
That's happened before with the Suns in the playoffs. Although the Lakers then didn't have a second offensive option as potent as center Pau Gasol, Bryant scored 50 points in a loss during a 2006 first-round series the Lakers eventually lost 4-3 to Phoenix. And Bryant averaged 35.2 points in a 2007 first-round series they dropped 4-1 to the Suns.
"Kobe is going to get his numbers,'' said forward Amar'e Stoudemire, who joins Nash and guard Leandro Barbosa as the only Suns remaining from those two previous playoff series against the Lakers. "We got to contain the rest of the guys, and make sure nobody gets off. We've done a good job of that so far.''
In other words, no "Kobe Stopper'' so far has been needed by Phoenix.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson