In Game 1, facing mostly single coverage, Kobe Bryant lit up the Suns for 40 points and five dimes as the Lakers shot 58 percent and rolled up 128 points. Not exactly what the Suns had in mind. So Wednesday night in Game 2, Suns coach Alvin Gentry went with Plan B, more frequently throwing extra bodies at Bryant. Kobe scored 21 points and handed out 13 assists as the Lakers shot 57.7 percent and rolled up 124 points.
A few more games of this, and the Lakers could be down to 55 percent and 117 points.
After the game, I asked Gentry if he thought last night's strategy on Bryant could be considered a success. "You look at Kobe's line, he's eight for 18. Has 21 points," he said. "But then when you do that, he has 13 assists. Guys, there's a reason he's the best basketball player in the world. he's not going to force things. He doesn't do that anymore. And so if you ask me if we did a good job on him, we took him from 40 to 21. So that's a good job. But when you add in the 13 assists, that's 26 more points. So you're looking at 47 is the way we look at it."
Technically, it was over 50, since at least four of Kobe's dimes resulted in threes, not twos. But let's not split hairs. For a great look at where Phoenix went wrong, check out this video, another top-shelf Kevin Arnovitz joint:
The basic problem? Phoenix isn't a good enough to pull off frequent double-teams, particularly with Amare Stoudemire having gone off the grid defensively. They neither rotate nor recover well, evidenced both by the number of wide open threes- players frequently face more pressure in pregame warmups- and easy layups generated when Kobe saw the additional attention. I realize the Lakers aren't the strongest perimeter shooting team in the league, but they're still professionals and when given time to set their feet, spin the ball, check for any prevailing drafts, and run through a few affirmations will more often than not knock down the shot.
No wonder Gentry was fishing for suggestions after the game.
For a team in this series to be averaging 126 points a game isn't unicorn-in-the-backyard shocking, but asked before Game 1 to guess which squad would be doing the deed, I'm sure many would have picked the Suns. Obviously, they need to do better. How, though, is quite the conundrum. They've tried single coverage on Kobe, they've tried sending more dudes. They've tried zoning up. Kobe is killing them, Gasol is killing them, Ron Artest is not just hitting threes, but getting into the lane with dribble penetration. Lamar Odom is hurting them on the glass and at the rim- all seven of his field goals Wednesday night came inside four feet- and in Game 2 Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar did damage as well, while Andrew Bynum was five of five from the floor, all from very close range.
The looks, simply put, are just too easy.
I'm no Tom Thibodeau, so there could be a plan out there that would work beyond simply hoping the Lakers go cold. I'm just not sure what it is. If L.A. continues to play with discipline, what can Phoenix do to stop them? I don't mean for a game or two (If the series doesn't come back to L.A., I'll still be surprised), but enough to win four of five. The best lineup the Suns can produce defensively- probably including Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson, and Robin Lopez- would have too much trouble generating points. Meanwhile, Nash, Jason Richardson, and Stoudemire create offense but collectively have too many faults.
And it can't be emphasized enough how much Stoudemire is hurting the Suns defensively. Really, it can't. And it should be noted, too, the Lakers are doing some great things offensively. I've harped on their lack of production all season, but a quick look at L.A.'s offensive efficiency over the playoffs shows a nice upward trajectory.
I never believed the Suns had somehow morphed into the Celtics, but they did look like a legitimately improved team in this postseason. When Phoenix needed stops against San Antonio, they got them. Through two games against the Lakers, though, it looks like I oversold the jump. Meanwhile, it's not like the Suns have been a disaster scoring the ball- L.A.'s defense has been solid, but not overwhelmingly so (though in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, the Lakers dropped the hammer).
If the Suns can't figure out a way to slow down the Lakers, what I thought would be a long, tight series will be neither.