Lakers-Suns: A Gaze Back at the Regular Season Series

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Did you know that the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns played each other four times this year? It's true! I looked it up and everything. In fact, it was quite the enjoyable regular-season series for Laker fans, as the purple and gold tagged their Western Conference Finals opponents with three losses - two bludgeonings at Staples and a scrappy March win at US Airways Center. When they begin their efforts to spring the upset next Monday night, the Suns will do so with these less-than-fond memories of Laker foots up their asses.

Before we start projecting how the WCFs will unfold, let's rewind our mental DVRs back to those regular-season contests. Three of them took place in 2009, the year before this one. To Suns fans, that means the games have no bearing on anything that happens next week. It's cute they think that, but I suspect they wouldn't if the Suns had looked a bit more competitive against the Lakers this year. Cherry-picking data samples is fun!

Follow me to the analysyzing.

Game One - in Los Angeles on 11/12/09: Lakers Win, 121 to 102

What happened: The Suns entered with an 8-1 record but were on the tail end of a back-to-back, having faced New Orleans at home the night before. Looking every bit the more energetic squad, the Lakers raced out to an 11-point first quarter lead. The Suns closed to within two points in the second quarter, but the Lakers ended the half with a 26-14 run to blow it open. The second half was garbagio time. Phoenix's starters played only about half the game.

With Pau Gasol still on the shelf because of a hamstring injury, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum were the dominant beasts of prey. Kobe scored 29 points on 23 shots - as I'm using the term here, "shots" includes two- and three-shot trips to the free throw line - and Drew dropped in 26 on 19 shots, adding 15 rebounds and three blocks. Good bench production arrived courtesy of Josh Powell (wait, what) who notched 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Josh Powell? Really, Phoenix?

What the Lakers did well: Bomb the crap out of the Suns' defense. The Lakers made 59% of their twos and 8 of 16 threes in one of their best shooting nights of the year. The result was a shiny 1.20 points per possession (PPP) on offense. On defense, they completely shut down Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson, who combined for 13 points on 30 shots.

What the Lakers did poorly: Shoot free throws. They missed 11 of their 18 freebies on the night. Drew, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest combined to make only one of nine (!) free-throw attempts.

Does it mean anything? Sure, maybe a little. The Lakers, playing without one of their two superstars, owned the Suns like they're farm animals. Also, this was a 101-possession game, evidence that the Lakers can do just fine against Phoenix in an up-tempo setting. On the other hand, it was early November, and the Suns were travel-weary. All fair to consider.

Got any highlights for us? Yep. Swag it up, Shannon Brown.


Game Two - in Los Angeles on 12/6/09: Lakers Win, 108 to 88

What happened: Basically the same thing. The Suns had played the night before in Sacramento and looked it. They fell behind by 11 in the first quarter (again), tied it up in the second and succumbed to a 19-9 run at the end of the first half. Another big Laker assault at the end of the third put the game away for good. The Lakers scored 1.23 PPP on the night to the Suns' 0.99.

Although he committed seven turnovers, Kobe had his shot working, scoring 26 on 19 attempts. Pau (now back in action) and Drew did their thing, combining for 27 points on 21 shots. Jordan Farmar tossed in 11 off the bench. The true star of the night, however, might have been Artest, who collected five steals and played spectacular defense throughout. Amare (18 points on 16 shots) was the only truly effective Suns starter. Richardson (10 points on 12 shots) had another poor outing.

What the Lakers did well: Just about everything. They outplayed the Suns in every phase of the game. They especially dominated at the free-throw line, shooting 26 freebies to the Suns' 11. This was also the Lakers' best offensive rebounding game against the Suns, as they recovered 33% of their own misses.

What the Lakers did poorly: Not much. Their 12 turnovers in only 88 possessions was a bit high, but otherwise this was a blemish-free performance.

Does it mean anything? Well, again, the Suns were on a road back-to-back. That's not easy, and that condition won't be repeated at any point in the series ahead. On the other hand, they weren't even remotely competitive in either game at Staples. In this game and the one described above, taken together, the Suns were outscored by the Lakers 1.21 to 1.00 on a per-possession basis.

Got any highlights for us? Indeed. Three things to note from the clips below are how (i) the Lakers sliced apart the Suns' D with sweet interior passing, (ii) Kobe lit up Grant Hill and Richardson with a full buffet of offensive moves, and (iii) Artest thoroughly disrupted the Suns' attack with his ninja defense.


Game Three - in Phoenix on 12/28/09: Lakers Lose, 103 to 118

What happened: The Lakers assumed the receiving end of the ass-kicking equation. Their play was enervated and sloppy. Defense kept them within reach for the first 24 minutes, but in the second half it completely collapsed, allowing Phoenix to score 1.38 PPP in both the third and fourth quarters. Kobe (34 points on 28 shots, one turnover) was the only Laker to play well. Bynum looked OK, but foul trouble took him out of his groove. Pau and Lamar were lifeless. The Lakers got nothing from their reserves until the game was out of reach. Artest didn't play thanks to his Christmas-night concussion.

Amare (26 on 19 shots) and Steve Nash (16 on 12, 13 assists) were productive, but the main plotline involved the Phoenix bench. Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez combined for an impressive 52 points. That more than made up for another crap night from Richardson (four points on seven shots). For the game the Suns scored 1.22 PPP to the Lakers' 1.06.

What the Lakers did well: The bench shot threes decently, making four of eight from beyond the arc. Even Adam Morrison buried one. Not much else went right.

What the Lakers did poorly: Compete. Even when the game was kind of close in the first half, they looked like a team that didn't want to be there. Except for Kobe and (in stretches) Drew, nobody was aggressive going to the basket or actively searching for the extra pass. The defense in the second half was a joke.

Does it mean anything? Yes, in that it shows that the Lakers need to care. They didn't in this one, and the Suns blew them up but good. That said, it was a strange point in the season for both teams. The Lakers were three days removed from the Christmas debacle against Cleveland and had squeaked by the Kings in double overtime two nights earlier. They were clearly off their game. On the other hand, it's not like the Suns were in peak form, either. They had dropped three of their previous four, including home losses to the Cavaliers and Thunder. It was a big win for them, and I don't think Artest would've made a real difference in the outcome.

Got any highlights for us? Presented without commentary.


For maximum enjoyment, please consult your local ecstasy dealer.

Game Four - in Phoenix on 3/12/10: Lakers Win, 102 to 96

What happened: The Lake Show came into this one desperately needing a signature road win. They'd lost four straight away from Staples, including the ghastly Miami-Charlotte-Orlando trip out east. Phoenix, meanwhile, was pretty much rocking, having won eight of their last ten. They took the court without a suspended Channing Frye.

Early on, it looked ugly for the good guys. The Suns scored 1.41 PPP in the first quarter to take a seven-point lead. In the second period, though, the Laker defense put that shit on lock, holding Phoenix to 15 points on 23 possessions. Three-point buckets from Artest and Derek Fisher triggered a 19-6 run to close the half, at which point the Lakers led by seven.

The second half was tightly contested. After falling behind by 13 in the third, Phoenix roared back to take a one-point lead with nine minutes left in the fourth. Then the Laker D kicked in again. The Suns scored two points on their next eight possessions, and their hopes were further submarined by Alvin Gentry, who went insane at a fairly benign no-call and got tossed with a double tech. Fish hit the two freebies to put the Lakers up 10, and Kobe made enough free throws in the final moments to salt away the victory.

What the Lakers did well: Get balanced, efficient scoring from their starters. All five of them scored at least 15 points on at least one point per shot. Pau and Drew did their usual damage, tag-teaming for 33 points and 17 boards. The Lakers also defended the arc exceedingly well. The Suns missed 15 of their 21 three-point attempts, "led" by Nash and Richardson, each of whom accounted for six bricks.

What the Lakers did poorly: Hold onto the ball. They coughed it up on 16% of their possessions, with Kobe (seven turnovers) the chief offender. Free throws were another problem. As a team they missed nine of 22 attempts.

Does it mean anything? Hell yes. This was the most recent game in the series and the only one in which the road team prevailed. It happened, moreover, in the middle of the Suns' second-half surge. This was the night when Phoenix was to announce their arrival as a true threat to the Western Conference throne, and the Lakers slapped them down.

Got any highlights for us? Why of course. When you watch this, note how many Laker fans were in the crowd. I have it on first-hand authority that the purple-and-gold faithful accounted for about 30% of those in attendance.


Pulling It All Together

Here are the composite stats for the four-game regular season series.

 

Poss./48

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

OReb Rate

DReb Rate

PPP

LA

94.0

14

0.25

67

0.23

49

42

52

56

28

69

1.15

PHX

94.3

14

0.26

74

0.25

48

33

49

51

31

72

1.07

What jumps out at me first and foremost is the gap in three-point accuracy, which is exactly the opposite of what you'd expect. In head-to-head action, the Lakers shot threes 8% better than their season average, and the Suns shot them 8% worse. Richardson's the guy who's killing Phoenix in this regard. Against the Lakers this season, he's missed 18 of his 21 three-point attempts. Hello, Ron Artest.

The Lakers' offensive rebounding rate qualifies as less happy news. The Suns were a bad defensive rebounding team this year. Only Golden State was worse. With their bigs, the Lakers should've had more success in generating second-chance looks.

On an individual level, Kobe's play against the Suns this year is awfully encouraging. I'm hearing a whole bunch of chatter about how the Suns have an answer for Kobe: how Grant Hill will make him work on D, how he won't fall for Kobe's jukes and pump-fakes, and so on. If there's any validity to this thesis, you sure as hell wouldn't know it from what's actually happened on the court. Honestly, the Suns' defense against Kobe has more or less sucked. He's averaged 27.5 points per game on 61% True Shooting. I mean... the 37-year-old Grant Hill, that's the one we're talking about, right? There's not some other guy named "Grant Hill" they signed in April who's some incredible defender?

Most everything you see in the regular-season data points toward a Laker series win. There are legitimate qualifications: three of the four games were played before the All-Star break, twice the Suns were on the second night of a back-to-back. But circumstances weren't ideal for the Lakers, either. Pau missed one of the games, and Artest missed another. At no point in the regular-season series were the Lakers as healthy as they are now.

Regular season results aren't destiny, but neither can they be outright dismissed. Over four games and 375 possessions, the Lakers outperformed the Suns by a not-particularly-small margin. How much have things really changed?

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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