With 6:47 to go in the fourth quarter, both teams took the court after a full timeout by the Lakers. Jared Dudley had drained a three-pointer before the stoppage, pushing a lead to 98-89 as part of a 9-2 run. This burst represented just one chunk of a frame owned entirely by Phoenix, who began the proceedings with a slim 85-84 advantage. Even more striking, the Suns did this damage rolling with five subs: Lou Amundson, Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye. The Lakers, however, paired their three main subs with Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant, the latter a one-man wrecking crew to this point.
The Suns bench had already announced it's collective zone, having befuddled the Lakers during the second quarter with some staunch, active defense and a flurry of points. 34 between five guys, highlighted by 11 from Frye, only slightly more productive than a cadaver during the previous three games. Still, the game --not to mention the series-- had reached a crucial patch, one traditionally closed out by a team's best players. Nobody would have blamed Alvin Gentry if he'd offered those guys a butt pat and a hearty handshake, then put his first five back on the floor. Particularly since Phil Jackson was now working with four starters and Lamar Odom.
Nope. Gentry opted to ride the hot hand, and that faith was rewarded.
For another 3:43, the nine point lead was maintained en route to 54 total bench points, allowing Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Grant Hill and Jason Richardson to further freshen their legs before removing their warmups to close the deal. Honestly, I don't even know if it would have mattered if Gentry kept his starters on ice until the streamers began littering the U.S. Airways Center floor. They had gelled as a unit and the Lakers weren't even on reading the same book, much less the identical page of it. And that's really the moral of story to me.
Quite literally, one team showed up. And the other team didn't.
To a large degree, this game was reduced to a showdown between Kobe Bryant's brilliance against a crew in unison. And make no mistake, Kobe was often truly brilliant. The guy didn't even make a basket until the second quarter's 8"19 mark, but finished the half with 15 points on six-of-nine shooting. Back-to-back long deuces. Back-t0-back triples. Toss in five dimes and four rebounds over the opening 24 minutes, and all signs were pointing in the direction of "one of those Mamba nights." The omens weren't mistaken. The night was wrapped with 38 points, 10 assists (against just two turnovers), seven rebounds and countless highlight reel plays. Really, I only have one criticism for Kobe. He should have eventually tackled his teammates, then taken the ball after they inexplicably stopped looking his way during the fourth quarter. What those guys were thinking, I have no idea.
Individually, this could go down as one of Kobe's better postseason performances, certainly of recent memory. But it's a team game, which makes it fitting Bryant's showmanship was ultimately downed by five players the casual NBA fan might not be able to identify without glancing at the back of a jersey. Too many things went wrong tonight for the Lakers to come out on top:
-Kobe said afterward the Lakers' defense "sucked," and I won't argue with him. A couple of 24 second violations forced aside, this was the most scrambled purple and gold lockdown we've seen in quite a while. Too many reach fouls. Too many shooters left open from distance in transition. Too little resistance offered by Pau Gasol against Stoudemire, whose confidence has clearly ballooned after a monster Game 3. Too little help provided by Bynum as a last line of defense between Amare and the rim.
-Getting beaten on the boards to the tune of 51-36. 18 offensive rebounds were surrendered and in many cases, the culprit was a lack of desire. The most glaring example was a loose ball was grabbed by Robin Lopez for a putback, despite having to fight through both Pau and Drew to clean the glass. I'm not a big fan of cliched sports jargon, but in this case, Sideshow Bob truly "wanted it more."
-Getting thrown out of sorts again by Phoenix's zone D. Yes, the Lakers broke triple digits, but they were often laboring to make it happen. Another night chucking treys (28) for a meager 32 percent conversion rate, boosted heavily by Bryant's six-for-nine clip. Impatience was high, efforts to swing the ball and find the creases inside were erratic. Too often, the rock rested in one player's hands.
Beyond allowing this scheme to bother their offensive game plan, Kobe felt the team became preoccupied with it in general. Between all the time spent working against it in practice and all the talk leading up to the game, mindfulness of principles on both sides of the ball were lost.
-Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar combined for five points on a two-of-12 showing from the field. As the reserve backcourt goes, so often goes the bench's overall effectiveness and even the game. Both experienced moments correctly likened to a train wreck.
Sometimes, a night like Kobe's will be enough to get the Lakers over the hump despite all odds. But I wouldn't want to depend on it. Tonight, the Lakers put themselves in the position of having to. A price was paid.
0: The number of Phoenix starters with a positive plus/minus. I can honestly say I've never seen that happen for the team actually winning the game. Meanwhile, the reserves were off the charts: Dudley, +12, Dragic, +18, Frye, +12, Barbosa, +13, Amundson, +14. Much of the damage was done against L.A.'s nearly non-existent reserves- more on that in a sec- but not all of it. Phoenix's seconds made noise against the Lakers' starters as well. On the other side, Lamar Odom had 15/10/3, but Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown combined to shoot 2-12 in 29 total minutes.
18: Offensive rebounds for the Suns off only 43 misses from the floor, good for a nearly 42 percent offensive rebound percentage. Phoenix was the 22nd ranked team for ORB% during the regular season. This sort of thing just shouldn't happen."We've got to cut that stuff out," Kobe Bryant said after.
2: The number of field goal attempts between Kobe and Pau Gasol over the first nine-plus minutes of the fourth quarter. It was a reflection both of effective play from the Suns- they attacked Gasol immediately whenever he touched the ball, for example- and poor choices from the Lakers. There were a few times Kobe was open and available to attack before the Suns could set their defense, but they didn't get him the ball.
24 minutes, 30 seconds: The portion of Game 4 passing before Kobe shot his first free throw. Brilliant as he was- and he was absolutely brilliant, make no mistake- the Suns forced him into a lot of tough perimeter shots. He was just so good tonight, they went in. Overall, his 15-22 shooting night illustrated how difficult it was for the Lakers to generate good shots. They shot another 28 three-pointers- not exactly the recipe for success- and only made it to the line 14 times as a group. The total output was good (49 percent shooting, 106 points) but on first view at least, misleading.
Kobe Bryant, on taking comfort in how the Lakers consistently performed in big games last season: "Can't rely on that. This is not last year. You just can't rely on that."
Kobe, on whether he needs any help carrying the scoring load: "Everyone wants to talk about the offensive side of the ball. It has nothing to do with it. Gotta defend."
Phil Jackson on whether or not Kobe got enough help, and issues against the zone: "Didn't we have five guys in double figures? We had a lot of guys in double figures. There were a lot of guys that contributed. Pau didn't have a 25 point game, but we had a lot of guys contribute. I have no problem with our offense at all. I think our offense is fine. We gave up a 40 point quarter in that second quarter, and we gave up a 30 point quarter in the fourth... I won't say we're struggling against the zone, I think we're struggling at the defensive end. That's where I see it."
Jackson, on concern his bench was "smoked": "It wasn't a Cohiba, I'll tell you that."
Jackson, on the defense: "I thought we were standing around watching. That's what I said to them, that we're not actively defending in sequences we know we have to defend. Some of it is anticipation, some of it is not being ready."