Given the Lakers scored 128 points in Monday night's Game 1 matchup with the Phoenix Suns, this may be the wrong time to talk about how Alvin Gentry's crew has, in fact, improved on that end of the floor. But clearly they're not the Celtics, and the largest reason is due to a fundamental problem of personnel.
Their two best players- Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire- are two of their worst defenders.
Obviously both need to be on the floor for Phoenix to be successful, but while solid teamwork or clever manipulation of matchups and schemes can often hide one weak link, it's hard to protect two players, particularly against a team like the Lakers.
Nash is what he is, a 36-year old point guard with All World offensive skills and average ability on the other side of the ball. Stoudemire, on the other hand, is supremely athletic but only recently seemed to take any interest in his defense. They- meaning people who watch him on a day in, day out basis- say he's improved, but "better" is a relative concept. I, for example, am better at basketball than my brother. In a pickup game, you want me, not him.
But you don't want me, either.
Offensively, the Lakers did myriad things right Monday night, and chief among them was taking advantage of Stoudemire's defensive deficiencies in a variety of ways.
Here are five examples:
HELP AND RECOVERY (or lack thereof...)
1) 9:00, first quarter: The Lakers aren't exploiting Stoudemire in isolation, but exploiting what they know he won't do with consistency and effectiveness, namely help and recover. Ron Artest takes Jason Richardson left off the dribble from the right wing, putting Richardson on his hip. Artest is so big there's not much a defender can do once placed in that position except hope for the help to come. It should come from Stoudemire, guarding Andrew Bynum on the left block, except he makes virtually no move to stop Artest save appearing to put a forearm in his back as Artest lays it in with the left hand.
1a) 7:00, first quarter: Artest again penetrates. This time, Stoudemire does help. Artest makes the right play, dishing to Bynum. Drew hesitates, giving Amar'e a chance to recover. Stoudemire takes a quick jump out, but it's more posturing than a real attempt to close on Bynum. Stoudemire doesn't contest in the slightest as Bynum finally makes his move, putting the ball on the floor and rising for the dunk. Ineffectual work at best from Amar'e.
Both examples show how Stoudemire doesn't frighten people inside. And perhaps why he finished 33rd in blocks per 48 minutes this season.
OFF THE BALL
2) 3:40, first quarter: Lamar Odom dishes to Kobe at the top of the key, then cuts to left corner. Kobe dribbles left, then back to the right as turns to back down Jared Dudley near the free throw line. Stoudemire, watching Kobe, totally loses Odom as he cuts beneath him along the baseline to the bucket. Kobe delivers the ball, and after missing the initial shot, Odom gets the putback.
ON THE PICK AND ROLL
3) 5:37, second quarter: Odom, with Stoudemire on him, holds the ball above the arc. Gasol, marked by Lopez, comes over to set a screen. LO takes his time coming over it, and by then Gasol had almost released, meaning the wall he puts up in front of Amar'e is minimal, at best. It doesn't matter, because Stoudemire is flat-footed and makes an incredibly weak attempt to come over the pick as Odom drives left and finishes at the rim. Bad play, lazy D, no recovery. Stoudemire is chastised by Doug Collins on the TNT broadcast.
POOR DECISION MAKING
4) :13.3, second quarter: L.A.'s last possession of the first half, in which Bryant nearly broke Grant Hill's ankles at the top of the key with a great crossover. As Kobe penetrates, Channing Frye challenges nicely, forcing a tough floater from the middle of the lane. challenging Bryant's shot.Stoudemire, guarding Josh Powell, makes a late and totally unnecessary attempt to send the shot deep into the 100 level- the goaltend would have been so obvious, folks in the 300's would have seen it- taking him out of position on Powell. With Nash now the closest Sun around to put a body on him, Powell rises uncontested for the offensive board and throws down the dunk.
ON THE BLOCK
5) 7:20, third quarter: For most of the game, when Pau Gasol and Bynum were on the floor together, the Suns put Stoudemire on the larger but hobbled Bynum. Meanwhile, Robin Lopez, a much better defender, took Gasol, clearly more an offensive threat at this point of the postseason. By and large, the Suns didn't get punished in the mismatch, but there were opportunities. Here, though, we see why Gentry didn't want Stoudemire on Gasol. Pau comes down the left side of the lane, meeting no resistance whatsoever from Amar'e. Caught in bad position, Stoudemire tries to move high side around Gasol to front him. Or at least I think that was what he had in mind. Regardless, it makes for an easy entry from Odom on the wing to Gasol's right hand. Pau spins and finishes with the easy dunk.
Too easy. Even understanding most players struggle to guard Pau in isolation, that was pretty bad.
From here, the game is basically salted away.
The Suns are aware of Stoudemire's shortcomings and do what they can to protect him, but it doesn't always work. If he can't pick it up, it'll be tough for Phoenix to even consider sending extra bodies at Kobe Bryant. Can he be relied to rotate and cover for guys properly, or recover if he's involved in the double?
The Lakers took some advantage of him, but I'd be surprised if they don't look to attack him more Wednesday night in Game 2.