LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers scores on a layup against Amar'e Stoudamire #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the second quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 19, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
I think we can all agree at this point that the Phoenix Suns are not what you would call an elite defensive team. I know pace plays a role, but I think that Jeff Van Gundy and Pat Riley would be rolling around in their graves right now if they weren't alive subjecting us to some of the worst color commentary imaginable or planning ways to undercut his head coach again, once his team looks ready to compete for championships. Pace or no, allowing 126 points per game, at a robust 1.33 points per possession, is ridiculous. Some of the poor defense isn't really anybody's fault. They don't have the size to deal with the Lakers inside, and you have to be willing to make certain sacrifices on defense in order to give copious amounts of playing time to an offensive prodigy like Steve Nash. Then there are the "correctable" issues, like Amar'e Stoudemire having the defensive instincts of a designated hitter. In last night's game, any time the ball came anywhere near the paint, Amar'e stared at it like my dog stares at me while I'm eating a steak, with uninterrupted focus. That would be alright ... in a staring contest. But, in basketball you tend to want to pay at least a modicum of attention to the guy you are supposed to be guarding, lest they decide to run towards the basket. Amar'e apparently disagrees, proving his statement about Lamar Odom absolutely true. LO is supremely lucky to have Amar'e as his "defender".
But this isn't about the Suns defense. It's about the Lakers offense. Let's say Steve Nash wasn't one of the most famously bad defenders of all time (Yay, hyperbole!) and Stoudemire was capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time; how much of a difference would it make? The ways to stop the Lakers from scoring are disappearing faster than LeBron James' Q rating. The offense is supposed to be the weak link of this team, and perhaps it still is, but if a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link, the Lakers chain seems strong enough to tow a space shuttle at the moment.
The Lakers have not been a good offensive team this season, for a variety of reasons. Derek Fisher spent most of the season trapped in carbonite. Ron Artest has been as consistent as the stock market. Kobe Bryant is halfway to requiring a bionic hand, and that didn't stop him from shooting too much for some people's tastes. The bench was one of the worst, statistically, in the entire NBA. Even the bigs failed to put the ball in the basket with their normal success rate. Considering the level of available talent, on paper, it was a failure of monumental proportions.
At the start of the playoffs, there was no discernible change. The Lakers PPP for the series against the OKC Thunder was 1.06, and would have been 1.03 if not for a very strong blowout performance in Game 5. Admittedly, OKC is everything the Suns (and Jazz) are not, defensively. But the Thunder were successful by utilizing a strategy which slowly circulated around the NBA this season. Shade your entire defense towards the paint, and watch as the Lakers toss up brick after brick from the outside. If the Thunder were to apply that strategy to the Lakers in their current form? The Lakers might be looking at a fo' fo' fo' situation.
That's because, at this moment, there are no weak links on the court for the Lakers. Derek Fisher? His regular season may have been epically bad, but it's only adding to the legend of his clutchness and intangibles, as he is currently shooting 42% from 3 pt range in the postseason. Ron Artest? OKC practically dared him to beat them, and watched him fail time after time, but in the past 4 games (an admittedly small sample size purposefully skewed to fit my argument, but still relatively valid), Artest is shooting 43% from deep. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar are both in the 40s from deep in the postseason as well, with Farmar closer to 50%. And these aren't numbers that are buoyed by a bunch of home games, either. In the last three games on the road, the Lakers have shot 50%, 44%, and 35% respectively.
If you can't count on the Lakers to miss from the outside, what can you count on? Not much. With both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol on the team (and both playing like absolute monsters, can we institute the co-MVP?), you can't play both those guys straight up. You probably can't even play one straight up. They haven't been unstoppable all season, but even when they were, it was OK, because the Lakers had enough weak links to allow for other teams to focus on Pau and Kobe. Now, throughout the 8 man rotation, the Lakers have no weak links.
And it's not just the improved outside shooting, either. Everything the Lakers do offensively has improved. The execution of the triangle is miles ahead of where it was a few months ago. The ball movement is crisp. The cuts are strong. The shot selection is fantastic. Defense can never stop offense 100% of the time, but the best defenses are predicated towards forcing an offense towards a situation where the offense will have the least chance of success. Where should a team force the Lakers these days? To a Ron Artest corner 3? To a Derek Fisher spot up from the elbow extended? Throughout the Lakers 8 man rotation, every player on the roster seems to be peaking offensively. There is no place to hide a poor defender, no player performing poorly enough to target as the guy you want to "force him to beat you."
Of course, extrapolating proof of offensive success from two poor defensive teams is fool's gold, to an extent. It's obvious to anybody with even a small amount of basketball knowledge that the Lakers would not be doing what they are currently doing against either of their potential Finals foes (IF the Lakers make the Finals, which is a pretty small if). The Suns, and the Jazz before them, won't be confused with defensive juggernauts anytime soon. If anybody has players capable of playing the Lakers well defensively, the two remaining Eastern Conference teams are it. The Lakers shooting stroke could also disappear just as quickly as it arrived, and against a team like Boston (who will throw multiple guys at Kobe in the name of making sure another guy beats them), the outside shot will be critical to success.
Still, with the talent the Lakers have at the top, it seems impossible to take away every option they have on the floor. A few weeks ago, it didn't matter, because one or two of the options on the court looked mighty inviting for a defense. Now, you truly have to pick your poison with this team, and all those poisons have more potency than they have all season.