PHOENIX -- It was a tag they spent close to two years trying to remove from the vocabulary of their critics, yet it was the only word that consistently came to mind as the Los Angeles Lakers were beaten and bullied by the Phoenix Suns time after time during the Suns' 115-106 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals which tied the series up 2-2.
Sure, other words like confused, apathetic and lethargic also came to mind, but "soft" seemed to fit the best. It's a word that became synonymous with L.A. after it was manhandled by the Boston Celtics two years ago in the NBA Finals, just as "Showtime" was synonymous with the Lakers of the 1980s. Terms like that start to grow on you when you let a group of guys playing a high school defense with the energy of a red-hot mid-major in the NCAA tournament run you off the court.
If you think that's insulting to the Suns, don't look at me, I'm just going off the way both teams described the Suns after the game.
"[We're] really different than most NBA teams," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "We're really more like a college team, to be honest with you, the way guys are."
Lamar Odom had to go back further than college to remember the last time he had seen a team play zone defense as much as the Suns had over the last two games.
"I haven't seen this much zone since high school," he said. "It's been a long time."
As Suns center Robin Lopez jumped up and down on the sidelines while jokingly being held back by teammates as if they were at the Apollo, the Lakers continued to let the Suns laugh up and down the court and score at will against them. It was as if both teams had hopped into a time machine and gone back to 2006 and 2007 when the run-and-gun Suns eliminated an overmatched Lakers team in the first round of the playoffs.
Everyone wants to talk about the Suns' zone defense and how it threw the Lakers off for the second straight game. Don't be fooled. That's a bit like pointing to a wine stain on the carpet of a house that just had its roof torn off. The zone wasn't really the problem in this game. (If it was, I don't even want to imagine how the Lakers would handle the far more intricate defenses Boston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau has in store for them if they play the Celtics in the Finals.) The Lakers shot nearly 50 percent from the field and scored 106 points on 90 possessions for an offensive efficiency of 117.8.
They were doing just fine on offense; the issue for them was on defense.
When you get to the playoffs, the words defense and toughness are one and the same. It's like the old adage in football: Defense wins championships. Well, they might as well just cut to the chase and say the toughest team wins championships. You need a certain mean streak to play defense, and Kobe Bryant was the only Laker who showed even a glimpse of it Tuesday night. Even Ron Artest, who was brought in for moments like this, failed to make his presence felt.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson got in the faces of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom at various points in the game. Jackson was probably wishing he could have hopped in a time machine, like the Suns seemingly did, and showed his big men how to scrap and fight for loose balls and put players going for uncontested layups on the floor, like he did when he played for the New York Knicks.
"I thought they knocked about four balls loose in the offensive boards," said Jackson. "Pau had the ball, Lamar had the ball and they lost the ball. [The Suns] were a little more aggressive on the boards, and I think that created an atmosphere that I didn't like in the ballgame. It ended up where there's quite a differential on the offensive boards, and that was a problem for us tonight. I thought they were the aggressor in that part."
Again, forget about the Suns' new and improved defense. The Lakers have averaged 116.7 points per game in this series, 107.5 in the last two games with the Suns playing zone. The problem is the Suns are averaging 113 points in the series and 116.5 in the two games at home. And again, Phoenix didn't have a problem getting to the line in Game 4; the Suns shot 19 more free throws than the Lakers (32-13).
The Lakers like to pride themselves on being chameleons who can play any style you want. The problem with that is they lose their identity when they attempt as many 3-pointers as the Suns and try to run up and down the court with them. That's not what made the Lakers a championship team last year, and it might ultimately prevent them from being a championship team this year if they continue to play like chameleons instead of black mambas.
"We lost the game because our defense sucked," said Bryant. "Our attention needs to be on the defensive end, period. That's second-chance opportunities. Their bench came in and gave them a big boost in getting balls back and getting them extra possessions. We've got to cut that stuff out."
While the Suns celebrated the win momentarily in their locker room after tying the series, Bryant was the only player in the Lakers' locker room who seemed visibly upset, not only by the loss but also by the Lakers' lack of urgency in closing out a team that they once had on the ropes but that now stands dead even with them heading into Game 5 in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
"This is not last year," Bryant said. "You can't rely on [past success]. We have to play with a sense of urgency and understand this team can beat us."
The Lakers should know that by now after dropping two straight games to the Suns. Whether L.A. understands what it will take defensively to win the series is the bigger question.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com