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)
If the Lakers win this pivotal game, they advance to their 31st NBA Finals as a franchise, and on roughly even footing with the Celtics in terms of rest. If the Lakers lose, they have one more shot in a Game 7 at home, but have even more pressure on them and are one potential Suns run away from an extended holiday period; and even if they win the Game 7 they'll already be on the back foot for a Finals series with the Celtics. Basically, it wouldn't exactly be a Ron-Artest-three-level bad idea to try and actually win this game.
The Suns are an unusual team in that they actually have the ability to beat the Lakers, even when the Lakers are giving full effort. To win this game against a certainly borderline-desperate Suns team will require not just effort, but crisp execution. On the offensive side of the ball, much has been made of how the Lakers have 'solved' the zone, but it only takes laziness on ball and player movement to 'unsolve' it. Defensively, the Lakers have only had one decent game this series, and that was Game 5. The Lakers need to play even better defense this game to have a decent shot of winning, as the Suns, particularly their bench, shoot and execute far better at home.
The switching of screens last game that took the Suns out of their offensive rhythm was a smart coaching move as it forced the Suns to adapt mid-game, but it shouldn't be continued into this game as the Suns have had a day to adjust, thus taking away the surprise factor, and, frankly, watching Pau Gasol try to defend Steve Nash is a horrifying prospect.
Steve Nash took on more of the scoring load last game than he had in the rest of this series, and while it did not translate to a win it certainly was not at detriment to his team. Steve can put points on the board efficiently, with his pure jump shot and ability to penetrate through angles. He'll get decent screens all game long, giving him space to work with. The key to limiting his effectiveness is to body him up, don't give him space for jump shots, and force him to drive into the key looking to score over the Lakers' bigs.
Steve Nash's All-Star partner, Amare, is more of a worry in terms of individual scoring. He is too quick and athletic for any Laker big to guard him effectively off the dribble, and has a propensity to get to the line in bundles. He also possesses the ability to hit the 15-18 foot jump shot, if given too much space. To limit him, the Lakers' bigs should play him close, force him baseline, attempt to cut off the angle for a good first step as soon as he catches the ball, and make him catch the ball either very deep with his back to the basket or on the baseline with his back to the basket, thus giving him little space to gain speed and momentum. Essentially, if the Lakers can take away his deadly face-up game and force him to compete with their superior size and length in a back-to-the-basket game, they should limit his efficiency sufficiently.
The Suns' supporting cast essentially consists of a solid all-round pro in Grant Hill, a pure scorer in Jason Richardson, a decent traditional big man in Robin Lopez, a hustle-and-boards player in Lou Amundson, and a bunch of deadly spot-up shooters. Out of that supporting cast, Richardson is the only true athletic cutter, thus when Nash is weaving through traffic, the help defense should not worry too much about cutters and instead come straight out to Nash to cut off his passing lanes, while the perimeter defenders stay home on the shooters.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lakers won't really struggle to put up points. The Suns put more effort into defense these days, and their execution on that end of the floor has certainly drastically improved from the run-and-gun era, but a solid offensive team like the Lakers should still have no problems putting the ball in the hoop. Possessing no truly superior perimeter defender, the Suns have absolutely no-one to stop Kobe from putting up his standard efficient 30+ per game. Derek Fisher is no offensive threat normally, but Nash is such an atrocious defender, Derek might just drop another 22 on him, even driving on him in isolation all the way to the cup.
Ron Artest needs to stop driving straight into the teeth of the defense, he simply isn't nimble, quick or co-ordinated enough to make a good play out of it the majority of the time, and is instead more likely to turn it over. He also needs to stop shooting threes, unless absolutely wide open late in the shot clock. Ron should work out of the post, having the smaller defender Jason Richardson on him.
Lamar Odom has been struggling on the road this series, shooting 37%, but has been aggressive. What Lamar needs to focus on doing is cut down on the threes, and either use his quickness advantage to drive by the likes of Amundson, his strength advantage to post up Frye, or his skill advantage to fake Amare out of position and get the score. Andrew Bynum has been lacking minutes in favour of Lamar this series due to his knee injury, and even when in rarely gets a post-up opportunity. Against Lopez, with Andrew's current lack of lift or rhythm, he shouldn't push the envelope in the post, but against Amare he should just power it to the basket. If Andrew ever finds himself on the low block with Frye defending him, anything less than a dunk is deplorable. Also, with so many other offensive threats out there for the Lakers, Andrew will often find himself alone, and should capitalise on those opportunities.
Pau Gasol will likely have Robin Lopez on him for most of the game, as Amare is a woefully substandard defender. Against Lopez, Pau does not really have a strength advantage, and even his quickness advantage is not as pronounced as it is against many bigs in this League. What he does possess, however, is the same skill advantage he possesses against 95% of bigs in this League. Pau is not an athletic freak of nature, nor is he really a tough banger, yet many present the argument that he is the best offensive post player in the League, with all the credit going to his skill-set. Lopez is a tough defender, but Pau can still score on him efficiently, as well as run the offense. Pau will doubtless be faced with many double-teams, but he possesses the passing skills to dissect said double-teams. If Pau had Amare, Frye or Amundson on him, he possesses at least two distinct advantages over each and every one of them, and thus should destroy them in single-coverage.
The Suns will still run the Zone, perhaps not as much as they did in earlier games as the Lakers have become more accustomed to it now, but it will still be present. Against the 2-3, it is undoubtedly difficult to work the ball inside-out, but if Kobe is given the ball to soften the defense up first, solid inside-out execution is sure to follow. Also, shifting Pau from the low block to the top of the free-throw line will exploit the core weak poinr of the 2-3, the middle, as well as providing better spacing and more room for cutters to work with. It will even open the block up more for the Lakers' perimeter players to exploit mismatches in the post.
The Suns may also throw some 1-3-1 out there, in which case there are several driving lanes that can be opened up through crisp passing, and once the driving lane is opened up the offensive player shall only be faced with one defender at the ring, easy pickings for the likes of Kobe Bryant. The 1-3-1 especially, also opens up threes, and if the Lakers players can make some threes for once, it throws the defense into disarray. With Jordan Farmar, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant hitting threes at red-hot clips for the Playoffs, and Sasha possessing the potential to also do so, this is a possibility.
The Suns bench is obviously one of their most dangerous weapons, far more dangerous than any individual player they possess. The bench is quick and filled with energy, and if Phil is forced to play his starters extended minutes Alvin Gentry may send his bench corps in to simply out-run the Lakers on the way to a major run. The bench is deadly from three, with everyone asides from Amundson capable of hitting from deep, and showcases the lightning-quick play of guards Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa. Essentially, if these guys are rested, no tired unit stands a chance. Therefore, the only way to somewhat neutralise the affect of their bench, is for the Lakers' bench to play well. Walton executed well in the few minutes he played last game, Sasha played great considering how little run he's had this season, and Farmar even had a semi-decent game.
Sasha Vujacic should definitely continue to earn minutes, as his defense on Dragic is invaluable, and there is always the chance he heats up from three, opening up the offense. Farmar is required for defending Barbosa, as Brown does not possess the speed and has been making some masterfully boneheaded decisions. The third perimeter bench player therefore must be Luke Walton, as he adds some stability to the offense possesses the size Shannon Brown does not in defending Jarred Dudley. On occasion, the Lakers could go ultra-small with Farmar-Brown-Sasha in the backcourt, but that lineup has too many players with the propensity to chuck up bad shots for my liking. It's imperative that the bigs playing with this lineup are Odom and Gasol, as Andrew's injury currently renders him incapable of playing at the pace the bench is likely to push to against the Suns; and Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga well, suck.
The Suns' bench play remarkably well, particularly at home, and it's unlikely that the Lakers' bench can hold them below 30 points. The Suns bench on D, however, is another story. While their energy and hustle allows them to force turnovers when on a run, their D is inconsistent and not helped by the fact that they are massively undersized. If the Lakers can continuously pound the ball down to Odom and Gasol against the likes of Amundson and Frye, Gentry will quickly be forced to pull at least some of his reserves.
Also, one way to take a bench's effectiveness out of the game is to mount such a decisive lead that no bench run would be enough to irrevocably seize the game. Just sayin'
Phoenix are gonna get to the line more than LA. They have all series, and it's a statistical trend that the Lakers often have tremendous free-throw disparities going against them, particularly on the road. Whether this is due to the Suns being more aggressive, home benefit of the whistle, or bias, is besides the point. The point is the Lakers need to sufficiently outscore the Suns in other ways so as to neutralise this advantage.
Game 5 was too close for comfort. Despite the Lakers' celebrations immediately afterwards, they certainly know it. Expect them to step their play up even more for Game Six, especially with Boston already waiting for them, undoubtedly mocking them for taking so long. However, this series is also about the Suns, who on the brink of elimination and on their home floor are sure to bring a bigger effort than they have all season. Will the Lakers do the same? And will the execution match the effort? This, my friends, is why they play the games.
If the Lakers win Game 6, we start gearing up for what's sure to be a legendary Finals series. If the Lakers lose Game 6 and go on to win in Game 7, they likely lose Game 1 of the Finals due to not having anywhere near as much preparation time as Boston have had, and thus give up Home-Court Advantage. If the Lakers lose both games... well, let's not go there.
Game 5 had a storybook ending for the Lakers, one sure to further unite them and inspire confidence as well as awareness. Will the series match?