PHOENIX -- The last time Kobe Bryant walked out of U.S. Airways Center, he was “jovial” – which is to say, he was spitting mad. The Lakers’ defense had faltered badly in Game 4, and Bryant was none too pleased that such a lapse would come at a crucial time in the Lakers’ championship defense.
So he fumed in the postgame interview room, railing stone-faced about how the Lakers had lost their defensive urgency and how they needed to get it back – and fast. The defending champs had succumbed to a barrage of 11 3-pointers, 49 percent shooting and 18 offensive rebounds in losing Game 4 115-106.
There was another defensive lapse in the second half of Game 5 at Staples Center – or “lapses,” as Bryant called them – when the Suns erased an 18-point deficit in the third quarter and an 11-point deficit in the fourth. Everyone will remember the chaotic, improbable finish, with Ron Artest catching, landing, and shooting the game-winner at the buzzer off Bryant’s air ball. But the other 47 minutes, 56.5 seconds of Game 5 provided a lot more clues as to how Game 6 might turn out Saturday night in Phoenix.
The Lakers did a much better job handling the Suns’ 2-3 zone, despite the fact that their shooting percentage declined from 50 percent in Game 4 to 42 percent in Game 5. They did it with dribble-penetration and ball-reversal, which made it easier to get the ball into the post, where Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom either kicked it out of the collapsing zone, worked their hi-lo interior passing Magic, or went to the basket. The Lakers’ triangle offense still wasn’t nearly as crisp against the zone, but it was more efficient than it had been since Suns coach Alvin Gentry adopted the strategy early in Game 3.
But Bryant had made it clear after Game 4 that he didn’t want the focus on offense, “which doesn’t win championships.” That’s why it’s worth noting a key tactical shift for the Lakers’ defense, and a greater commitment to rebounding and running the Suns off 3-point shots – with Bryant himself, unsurprisingly, leading the charge.
The Lakers’ defensive effort, the kind prescribed by Bryant after Game 4, began showing up midway through the third quarter as the Suns were trying to cut the deficit into single digits. Artest, who later would go from goat to hero in a matter of seconds, blocked Amar’e Stoudemire’s shot and then stole the ball from Steve Nash leading to his own layup that made it 67-51 Lakers with 6:13 left in the quarter. The teams exchanged baskets for the next two minutes, a breakneck pace the Lakers want to avoid, when Bryant put a stop to it himself.
Stoudemire, seeing a different look with the Lakers switching on pick-and-rolls, lost the ball out of bounds for his fourth turnover. On the Suns’ next trip, Bryant soared in the lane and blocked Stoudemire’s shot – a statement play from the “jovial” Bryant, who got his third block of the night. It was 73-56 Lakers, but they couldn’t sustain the defensive effort – sure to be a point of emphasis in Game 6.
“We had a mental lapse,” Bryant said. “Mental lapses – transition defense and giving up 3-point shots and great looks. But the defense had been steady pretty much all night, except for that spurt when we enabled them to get back into it.”
There were more statements from Bryant, who aggressively closed out on Jared Dudley at the 3-point line and forced him instead into an off-balance runner that he missed with the Lakers leading 83-72 early in the fourth. After the Suns cut it to 88-83, Bryant got his fourth block, this time on Goran Dragic, and grabbed the defensive rebound with 6:24 left.
“Defensively we were terrific,” Bryant said. “We did a great job. We had a stretch where we enabled them to get back in the game, but for the most part we did a good job.”
Despite the way it ended for the Suns, Game 5 was the first time in the series that the road team dictated its tempo and style. The Lakers survived with a little luck, with consistent – if not always effective – effort on the defensive end, and with Artest showing far better instincts on the last play than he’d shown moments earlier when he launched an ill-advised 3-pointer when the right play was to run out the clock and wait for the Suns to foul.
Despite the shift in venue, expect a carbon copy of Game 5 Saturday – without the ending, of course. For five games, the Suns and Lakers have felt each other out, and now it’s clear how they’re going to attack each other and try to stop each other.
“We know what they want to do now,” Stoudemire said. “They’re going to switch the screen-rolls and try to take me out the game. We still need Steve to be aggressive.”
By switching on pick-and-rolls, thus doubling Stoudemire and leaving a big man on Nash, the Lakers turned the Suns’ prolific passer into more of a scorer in Game 5. Nash was up to the task, ripping off one difficult and clutch shot after another in the closing minutes. Nash will be a scorer if he needs to be, but the Suns can counter the Lakers’ strategy by simply setting another screen for Nash and forcing the Lakers to make another decision. If there’s an open man to be found, Nash will find him. And as is always the case with the Suns, if they shoot the ball at a high percentage, they usually win.
“Whatever they throw at us, I think there’s something we can do to use our abilities,” Nash said. “They had a big guy on me. I tried to be aggressive, and the next game I’ll do the same. Or if they change it, we’ll go to whatever else they’re giving up.”
Before he’d even left the arena Thursday night, Nash was already moving pieces around on the chess board in his mind. And you can bet that Bryant, albeit more quietly this time, was doing the same thing.