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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Book the Finals, since same-old-Suns aren't stopping Lakers


LOS ANGELES -- The fact that we can at least look forward to a competitive NBA Finals when the Lakers and Celtics meet again was no consolation for Alvin Gentry, who couldn't stop staring at the stat sheet as he stood outside the Suns locker room.

The Lakers are so good right now, so lethal and without peer, that Gentry seemed to need the numbers to validate the sickening feeling in his stomach after the Suns were dissected and exposed with a 124-112 loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The 2-0 deficit that awaits Gentry back in Phoenix, and the three days of dread leading up to it, is bad enough. The memory of how thoroughly the Lakers have dismantled his team in the first two games of this series will be harder to erase.

"I don't remember Game 1," Grant Hill was saying in the losing locker room, when asked about what had changed between Monday and Wednesday -- and nothing had, really, except a few of the celebrities in the money seats at Staples Center. "Hit the delete button on that one."

He might as well do the same for Game 2, which in some ways was even more demoralizing even though the Suns, believe it or not, played better.

"Every time we'd make an adjustment to slow them down, they'd go somewhere else," Gentry said. "We'd do a good job on Kobe [Bryant], and they go to Pau [Gasol]. We'd double-team Pau, and there's Lamar [Odom]. We'd get it out of Lamar's hands, and Jordan Farmar makes shots. There's a good reason they're the world champs. ... It's pick your poison with these guys."

The Suns, winners of 54 games during the regular season and architects of a surprising sweep of the four-time champion Spurs, are officially sick to their stomach of the Lakers. Too many poisons to choose from.

"Like I told the guys, it's no surprise," Gentry said, clinging to that stat sheet like it was an eviction notice from the playoffs. "Any team that plays them is going to struggle with them."

We'll see about that when the Lakers finally face a playoff opponent that plays defense. Despite all the hype about how much better Phoenix is in that area under Gentry -- the point of reference always being the defense-less Mike D'Antoni era -- the Suns hardly fit that description.

And so those who've been eager to dump on D'Antoni, saying the Suns' success is a repudiation of his time in Gentry's seat, now have a problem. After the Suns allowed 252 points in the first two games of the conference finals, where they will lose again just as they did twice under D'Antoni, there's no longer any defense for that argument.

The Lakers proved that the Suns are just as helpless a defensive team as they've ever been. Their only consolation is that everyone who has stood in the Lakers' way during this eight-game postseason winning streak has looked just as bad.

"We tried some different things, and I think Alvin kind of scrapped that in the third quarter and said, 'Let's try and get back to what we do,' " Hill said. "I think we'll just probably go back to what we've been doing all season, because there has been some indecision. We're just not sharp and crisp. And so we'll talk about it and kind of do what we've been doing all year -- fronting the post the right way, forcing people baseline, rotations, trapping, all that kind of stuff. We've done it all year and it becomes instinct. And I think right now we're kind of out there, not quite sure. It might be a bad excuse, but that's kind of what I saw."

No, not an excuse. Just an honest description of the Suns' reality. No matter which poison they choose, it goes down smooth.

After Bryant's 40-point performance in Game 1, the Suns were determined to pressure him more and send another defender his way on occasion. Imagine that. Well, that didn't work, either. Bryant had a lethally efficient 21 points on only 18 field-goal attempts and dished out a career playoff-high 13 assists -- the most by a Laker in the playoffs since Magic Johnson.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers keep finding ways around whatever defense the Suns can throw at them. (Getty Images)  
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers keep finding ways around whatever defense the Suns can throw at them. (Getty Images)  
Bryant, in fact, finished only two assists shy of Steve Nash, the quintessential point guard of his generation. The Lakers made Nash look human, too, forcing him into five turnovers -- including back-to-back miscues sandwiched around a corner 3-pointer by Farmer that gave the Lakers a 104-95 lead with 7:22 left.

These were the least of Gentry's problems. Privately, he admitted that he knew Lakers coach Phil Jackson was going to find a way to incorporate some humble pie for Amar'e Stoudemire into his game plan Wednesday night. After Stoudemire had ridiculed Odom's 19-point, 19-rebound performance in Game 1 as "lucky," Jackson handed the pie to Gasol, who smashed it in Stoudemire's face.

When the Suns sent the game into the fourth quarter tied at 90, the Lakers went to Gasol in the post against Stoudemire again and again, and he delivered. It's what he does. Gasol was 11 for 19 with 29 points -- 14 of them in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers outscored the Suns 34-22.

Odom? Another double-double, of course. That is what he does when he's motivated, and Stoudemire certainly had taken care of that. Odom had 17 points and 11 rebounds, prompting Bryant to say afterward, "We're very fortunate to have him."

"They've made it difficult for us no matter what scheme we throw at them defensively," Nash said. " ... We gave them 120-something points, so we haven't found a way to slow them down yet. And I think if we're going to beat them, we've got to find a way to slow them down, not let them shoot in the 50s every game and not give up 120-something points every night."

So it's the same old problem for the Suns, who still don't play enough defense to get past the conference finals. Blame that on whomever you want, past or present. I'm inclined to wait and see how many points the Lakers get against a real defensive team like the Celtics -- see how easily these poisons go down against Tom Thibodeau's schemes -- before I make any grand proclamations about whether a team playing the Suns' system can ever win a title.

"As long as we have Steve Nash, we're going to play the style of basketball that we play," Gentry said. "And that's to spread the court, have him make decisions with dribble penetration -- obviously, he's a great shooter, too -- and get out and run and play a fast and up-tempo game. Not so much the breakneck pace that we played in the past, but I still think we play with a rhythm that makes Steve the best player that he can be. He's the one that runs the show in this thing and does a great job with it.

"What we've tried to do is we've tried to incorporate defense. We've been real solid in that area right there. I don't know that we'll ever be a great defensive team. But I think we can be real solid, and we've been real solid for most of the season."

Not now. Not in the crucible of playoff basketball, against a team with this much size and all these weapons.

"Maybe the next game we'll decide to let Kobe get 80 and try to guard the other guys," Gentry said.

On the way out of the news conference, Gentry mumbled, "I'm open to suggestions, guys. Even from the media."

I don't envy his job over the next 100 hours or so, and I won't be much help, either. The only suggestion I can come up with is this: Enjoy the Lakers vs. the Celtics in the Finals.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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