What's not to like, right? Well, actually a few things, if you want to nit-pick. And it doesn't even matter.
You might be surprised by the number of key statistical categories that the Suns won last night. Turnovers, free throws, rebounding, all categories in which the Suns had an advantage — and they really shouldn't have. Not that it did them much good, of course, and we'll forgive the Lakers some minor lapses in what was, overall, an absolutely dominant performance. To sum it up, the Lakers simply scored better and defended better, and the game was never close. Period.
Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum dominated in the paint, and the Lakers effectively contained Steve Nash while thoroughly thwarting the Suns' scorers. All of them. The leading scorer for the high-scoring Suns? Jared Dudley with 14 points, most of which were scored after the game was already decided.
The Lakers shot 57.6% from the field and 50% on threes, while holding the Suns to 36.5% from the field and 34.8% on threes. Game over.
Hey Boston, did we mention Pau Gasol hasn't played yet?
Let's go ahead and get into the negatives, the things the Lakers didn't do well, and then I'll explain to you why they were completely acceptable concessions to make to this Suns team.
|Possessions||TO%||FTA/FGA||FT%||eFG%||TS%||Off Reb||Def Reb||PPP|
As you can see in the table above, the Suns turned the ball over at a lower rate, earned free throws at a higher rate, hit their free throws at a much higher rate, and thoroughly out-rebounded the Lakers on both ends of the court. Let's start with why this might bother you.
The Suns are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the NBA, and not very good at forcing turnovers; the Lakers force turnovers quite well, but are pretty good at controlling their own. And yet, the Lakers turned the ball over at a higher rate than the Suns last night. The Suns also rebounded at a much higher rate than the Lakers, which is in keeping with the trend on the defensive glass, but pretty unusual on the offensive boards, where the Lakers usually dominate. And even beyond statistics, it could be seen as a bit disappointing that the Small Suns out-rebounded the Long Lakers.
Finally, the Lakers earned fewer free throws than the Suns — all of which is in keeping with their trends thus far, but it's worth noting that the Lakers fell well short of their usual .271 FTA/FGA mark, at only .196. Worst of all, they made only 38.9% of their free throws. Unacceptable.
Now let me tell you why none of this is as big a concern as it might usually be — well, aside from all the missed free throws, that is. The reality is that most of this was simply part of the Lakers' game plan — a game plan that worked to perfection.
The Suns are a running team. As Timbo made quite clear to us all yesterday, Jason Richardson in particular is the king of leaking out early as soon as the Suns' opponents take a shot, where the Suns feed him for early offense in the forms of layups and PUJIT threes. They're also great at spacing the floor and knocking down absurd amounts of three-pointers at a very high rate.
The Lakers solution to this was three-fold. First, forget about offensive rebounds and get back on defense. Don't let them run out on you. They did that, and the Suns had a hard time scoring as they usually do. Second, send the ball into the post on offense and bring the entire Suns defense below the free throw line. This they also did, and it further limited long rebounds and easy run-out opportunities for the Suns. Specifically, Kobe going into the post was particularly effective, not only because he decimated the Suns in the paint (which he did), but also because Jason Richardson was his defender, and getting him so close to the basket on defense made it hard for him to run out on early offense; you don't just sneak out on Kobe Bryant. Third, cover the shooters. Chase them off the three-point line, contest their shots. In general, don't give them a chance to shoot themselves into the game with open threes. They did this, and the Suns shot 34.8% from long distance, compared to their 47.4% mark from the first nine games of the season.
In addition, the Lakers played a containment game with Steve Nash. We're all well acquainted with Nash's ability to dribble penetrate into the heart of the defense and then dish to cutting forwards and open shooters. Last night, they looked to limit his effectiveness in that role, and part of that simply means less gambling and more defense. Again, the Lakers were successful in their efforts, as Nash was held to 13 points and, most impressively, only five assists.
While the Lakers FTA/FGA rate was pretty low, it could have had something to do with the fact that they shot the ball so well and scored so easily. The Suns aren't exactly a physical team, and they didn't have a prayer against the Lakers superior size.
Let's talk a bit more about defense before we lavish praise on Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, shall we? Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest, and Kobe Bryant were fantastic, and the team as a whole was quite stingy. Bynum completely frustrated Amare Stoudamire, holding him to 2-15 shooting for eight points and only 5 rebounds. Jason Richardson and Leandro Barbosa struggled against the Lakers' backcourt, with Richardson going 2-9 for five points (0-5 on threes) and Barbosa going 4-12 for nine points. Between the five starters and sixth man Barbosa, Nash was the only one to score in double digits, with 13 points.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this game is that ever-controversial box score statistic, the assist. However, while assists are limited and often misleading in characterizing an individual player's passing, they are much more effective in characterizing a team's passing. And while the Lakers moved the ball extremely well, tallying a stellar 36 assists on 53 buckets, the Suns were held to only 12 assists on the night. For a team that spaces the floor and passes so well, that's a strong indicator of how well the Lakers defended this Phoenix team.
Offensively, there was plenty to be happy about. The Lakers knew their advantage, and they never strayed from the game plan. They took the ball into the post and imposed their superior size and strength at will. Jason Richardson had not a prayer against Kobe, who continued to dominate in the post. Andrew Bynum looks better and better every day, displaying an array of post moves and simply shooting over the Suns' "bigs." I never tire of admiring Drew's soft hands; last night, he caught several tough passes, throwing down what seemed like a handful of alley-oops, including a reverse-dunk alley-oop.
Both Bryant and Bynum had extremely efficient games. Combined, they were 26-39 from the field for 51 points, along with 19 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks. Quite a superstar duo.
Of course, the rest of the team wasn't too shabby, either. Artest continued his solid defensive play, and continued to play well within the offense. Derek Fisher hit some shots, and Lamar Odom had a quietly efficient all-around game, as he is prone to do (4-5 shooting, 8 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 1 block).
Most impressive after Kobe and Drew, however, were the bench players. Josh Powell was 6-10 for 14 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. Shannon Brown was a BEAST, shooting 4-6 for 10 points, along with 4 assists and a couple of monster dunks. Dude got hops. Jordan Farmar was positively brilliant. Sure, he missed most of his shots, but who cares? He facilitated the offense like he rarely has, tallying 8 assists in just 21 minutes of burn. Adam Morrison hit both of his shots, and Luke Walton dished out 4 assists.
In all, the bench was 18-35 for 45 points, along with 17 rebounds, 17 assists, a couple steals, a couple blocks, and only 5 turnovers. They were much more controlled, their passing was crisp, and if they keep this up, we just might have the old Bench Mob back. The commentators, apparently uninformed overall (seriously, how do they not know about the MVP chants or the tacos?), stated that Phil Jackson has started reining the bench in more. He used to let them play loose and unstructured, letting them play more of a running game, but has recently decided to get them into the triangle more, to bring them more under control. The last few solid games from the bench could just be coincidence, but it could also be that this strategy is working. If the Lakers bench becomes a reliable force again, we'll be extremely hard to beat.
Overall, the Lakers held the Suns to an excellent 0.99 points per possession, while scoring at a very high rate of 1.17 points per possession on the other end of the floor. Good defense, good offense, plain and simple.
Oh, and hey Boston, did we mention Pau hasn't played yet?