After the Suns finally got on the board last Monday, much of the chatter centered around the Lakers' poor reaction to Phoenix going zone. Without question, the Lakers' response to the defense left something to be desired. But as Fleetwood Mac famously said, yesterday's gone, as is the element of surprise. The Lakers spent Tuesday's practice working against this scheme, so I'm expecting more readiness. With that in mind, here are five "non-zone" items worth watching in tonight's game:
1) Amare Stoudemire's 42 points were an eye-popping explosion. Amare tying his career playoff-high went above and beyond my expectations. Still, what truly caught my attention wasn't the slew of points, but the way they piled up. From the Suns' second possession onward, when Amare beat Pau Gasol off the dribble and earned a trip to the line courtesy of Andrew Bynum, a marked increase in aggressiveness was displayed.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Amare Stoudemire was determined
all game to go to the hole.
Despite reliability from mid-range, Stoudemire barely worked his jumper, popping just four shots from 15 feet or further. Instead, Stoudemire was largely fed on by the move by Steve Nash or simply attacked the rim. These strong moves seemed to catch the Lakers flat-footed (literally), as Bynum and Lamar Odom morphed into bench-bound whistle magnets and Gasol tuckered out picking up the slack. I can't imagine why STAT would abandon this approach, so the Laker bigs should anticipate Amare in motion. Be prepared to move your feet while defending and rotate purposefully while helping. Defend without fouling.
(On a similar note, no excuse for being caught off guard again by Robin Lopez's prominence as an offensive option. Fool me once, shame one you. Fool me twice... well, you know the drill. Beware The Fropez!)
2) By the way, mental readiness isn't just about Amare's attack or the zone D. The Lakers' general focus during Game 3 wasn't up to snuff, slippage we haven't seen since the playoffs' opening round. 17 turnovers, many of the unforced variety. Passes flying through hands. Lazy, telegraphed passes. Stepping out of bounds. Offensive fouls. The points surrendered off these gaffes (14) weren't necessarily ridiculous, but against a team like Phoenix, you can't afford to pass up scoring chances nor give them an extra possession to do damage.
Another example of bad awareness was Shannon Brown fouling Leandro Barbosa as he pushed the ball towards halfcourt with 1.5 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Brazilian Blur's odds of making hay in this situation didn't justify such aggressive D from Brown, particularly while in the penalty. To boot, the error offset a pair of freebies drained by Bryant on the Lakers' final possession of the frame.
Mental mistakes kill on the road.
3) It's become commonplace for sports to be described using military phrases. Experienced players have been "through the wars."Games are won "in the trenches." Guys with heart are "warriors." Cliched? Yup. But assuming no lines are crossed -- for reasons I've never understood, comparing the hardwood to combat ground is okay, but formally referring to yourself as a "soldier" is going too far -- everyone seems to enjoy the jargon.
All kidding aside, by the time Game 3 wrapped, the Suns actually resembled a bunch of gladiators.Christian Peterson/Getty Images
The first rule of Fight Club is you do
not talk about Fight Club!
Stoudemire's forehead was sliced and bloodied after a collision with Derek Fisher's arms. In addition to his now-iconic schnoz, Nash's chin absorbed some hard contact from Kobe's elbow during an offensive foul by 24. On the other side of the coin, between a forceful block on Ron Artest and his "incidental" elbow to Fish's noggin, Lopez was dishing pain. Whether giving or receiving, this was a big night of physicality for the Suns.
It was also the best they've looked all series.
Coincidence? Maybe. But it doesn't really matter, because I doubt Phoenix will treat the results as such. The Suns looked inspired and alive, like they really enjoyed getting gritty. Being a good defensive team and being a physical team are two very separate issues. It's almost impossible to be the former without being the latter, but the reverse is easily doable. Just ask the 2008 Denver Nuggets. Expect more of the same in Game 4.
4) During Game 1, Channing Frye hit a three-pointer with 15 seconds to go in the first quarter, his first make in four attempts. A rather significant trey for the Arizona product, as it also marks his only basket in the series. Frye has since bricked 16 consecutive field goals and added just one point (off a technical free throw) to his tally. I can't recall a marksman big flailing this badly in the postseason since Robert Horry in '03. Judging by Frye's recent reaction to questions -- plus a foul-to-rebound ratio of 2:1, indicative of a player out of sorts -- the slump is wearing on the typically affable sharpshooter.Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
It's a very safe bet Channing Frye
missed this shot.
If there's a way to get even further inside Frye's head, the Lakers need to jump all over it. On occasional possessions, it might worth making an obvious display of daring him to shoot. Try to force the ball into his hands whenever possible. Have players whisper "Frye... Frye..." around him like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day off to emphasize how absent the dude's been. Anything to put the reserve center on tilt. If he doesn't get off to a quick start tonight, he's likely cooked for the entire series. Assuming we haven't already reached the point of no return.
5) Phil Jackson's rotation has remained faithfully fixed at eight players this series, but I could see the deep reserves getting a little run tonight. For starters, the schedule has entered every-other-day territory, eliminating the opportunities for rest greatly benefiting the Lakers this postseason. To keep everyone fresh, Phil may spell his core players for a few minutes if possible. Or his hand may also be forced altogether.
Bynum remaining ineffective means longer minutes for Gasol and Odom, so someone needs to provide a breather. Phil went small at times with Artest, but Josh Powell would be a prime short-term option. (Ditto D.J. Mbenga if going big was preferable.) If the zone continues puzzling the Lakers, it wouldn't shock me if Luke Walton was given short minutes as a specific counter. Luke's had past success recognizing the proper passing angles to get the ball inside and bust the zone, not to mention the discipline to avoid shooting from outside as a knee-jerk reaction. It also wouldn't be outlandish for Sasha Vujacic's number to get called in hopes of hitting a few three's to discourage the zone altogether, but I'd like to think a strategy where the Lakers bomb their way to victory is more last resort than first.
In any event, the third stringers have taken pride in an ability to remain ready when called upon. Tonight, if needed, can be no exception.