PHOENIX - MAY 25: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reaches for a jump ball against the Phoenix Suns during Game Four of the Western Conference finals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs at US Airways Center on May 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 115-106. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Edmund Burke was famously quoted as saying "Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it." The quote was not meant to convey a positive sentiment, hence the popular variation "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." But what happens when a repeat of history is exactly what you are looking for?
That's where the Los Angeles Lakers are right now. They believe in their own history, and are counting on that history to deliver them a repeat championship. As I mentioned in the game 4 recap, the Lakers have been in this exact position 3 times in the past (nearly) calendar year. Entering into a Game 5, series tied up, fresh off a Game 4 meltdown. The Lakers have home court advantage. Their opponents have all the momentum. 3 straight times, the Lakers have entered this game with uncertainty regarding the outcome of the series, and three straight times the uncertainty has been resolved by game's end, with a resounding performance.
The Phoenix Suns are different than any other opponent with which the Lakers have shared these circumstances, and yet they are also the same. The Houston Rockets were missing one (or two) superstars, and lacked the firepower to get the job done. Phoenix does not lack firepower. The Denver Nuggets were a powderkeg, just looking for a reason to implode. The Suns do not lack mental fortitude. The Oklahoma City Thunder were too young to be able to deal with the mounting pressure of a contested playoff series. Phoenix has plenty of veteran experience. But the Suns have their own fatal flaw, their own weakness that makes a championship, or even a victory in this pivotal game 5, unlikely. The Phoenix Suns have a general inability to defend.
The Lakers are flawed, too. They don't lack firepower, experience, defensive ability, or mental fortitude. What they lack is a respect for their opponents, and the focus on doing their job to the best of their abilities which comes along with that respect. The Lakers don't think the Suns can beat them when they try, so they don't always try as hard as they should. They had the same thoughts about the Thunder, the Nuggets and the Rockets as well, and they were proven right. Their absolute confidence/arrogance is both their best and worst quality. It is their flaw, when they have so few others, but it has not yet proven to be fatal.
So why should you, as a Lakers fan, be concerned? These past paragraphs have provided no reason to think tonight's result won't fall in our favor. All the history we have to learn from screams that the Lakers come out with full focus and annihilate the Suns, and that quite possibly could be the case. However, the Suns have an ace up their sleeve, something that the other teams never had. You can't create a superstar, you can't fake expereience, and you can only hold out against your own personal craziness (if you have those genetics) for so long. But you can compensate for a poor defense with a strong gameplan. The Suns have a 2-3 zone that, if the Lakers can not make the adjustments which teams two levels below the NBA are capable of, will see them pose a real and legitimate threat in this series.
There's plenty of debate as to which factor is more important: The Lakers inability to deal with the zone, or the Lakers lackluster defensive performance. For me, the two go hand in hand because they do not exist in a vacuum. The Lakers have shown the ability (as they did in quarters 1 and 3 of game 4) to make the Suns struggle on the offensive end. The key to doing so is turning the Suns into a half court team. Don't get me wrong, the Suns can score no matter the circumstances, but the Lakers were killed in Game 4 because of short periods of time in which the Suns got a couple of stops and those stops led to transition opportunities. The rest of the time, the Suns slowly hemorrhaged the lead as the Lakers fought an uphill battle towards equaling the score. If you remove those two brief explosions from Game 4, the Lakers win by double digits. That's what the Lakers must do; remove the explosions. The best way to remove the explosions is to continue scoring, continue to exploit the zone defense that should be so exploitable.
Doing so requires two things. First off, the Lakers obviously can not continue to settle for outside shots all the time. They've shot way too many 3s in the past two games, and they need to cut the number down. They need to involve Pau Gasol in a more meaningful way than "Hey foreigner, go get the rebound as I throw up this brick". They also need to make some open 3s as well, to punish the Suns for failing to close out on guys who can hit that shot. And the Lakers can not count on another virtuoso performance from Kobe Bryant. I'm not saying Kobe can't do what he did in game 4, but if the Lakers are counting on it to secure victory, it'll be a long night. The other thing required, in my mind, is an adjustment of the rotations. I don't think the Lakers can afford to have Andrew Bynum play with the bench. When the pace gets fast, Bynum can't keep up, and it makes it easy for the Suns to get easy 3s and layups in transition. Unfortunately, due to Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown's penchant for playing up to PHX's pace, Bynum's presence with the bench becomes a huge defensive liability. I think PJ should sub Gasol out for LO in the 1st quarter, and then play him the majority of the 2nd quarter, in order to remove this particular problem. That, or just play the starters and LO the full 48 (kidding ... sort of).
A defining factor of this game (and probably the defining factor) will be the play of the two benches. Coming into this series, the Phoenix bench was (rightfully) pointed to as their big advantage. Through three games, the Lakers bench was embarassing their stronger counterparts. In Game 4, the PHX bench made up for all that in one fell swoop. The home/road bench performance we've seen in this series (with each bench performing much stronger at home) falls right in line with what you'd normally expect in the NBA, but it's also counter from what we've seen from these two teams. The Suns bench was a big factor in helping them pull away from the Spurs in San Antonio. The Lakers bench provided strong performances on the road in victories in both Oklahoma City and Utah. The point for tonight's game? Don't count on the Suns bench to wither under that Staples spotlight. We need our bench to come closer to matching what the Suns bench provides.
On the defensive end, I really believe it's as simple as stopping their transition play. In the half court, the Suns will score, but not nearly as much as you score on them. Amar'e Stoudemire was a different player in Phoenix than he was in L.A. I don't expect him to revert to the form from games 1 and 2, because he is a star. That said, if brings game 4 performance, it's easily something that the Lakers can deal with. The Suns overall 3 point shooting will probably stay about the same (a combination of improvement from the starters and regression for the bench), but as long as the Lakers don't allow them in bunches, they should be alright.
History says the Lakers will win this game, but history does not create certainty. Hopefully, this will not be the beginning of a history the Lakers will seek to avoid being doomed to in the future.