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Lakers 116, Suns 121: An Amber Alert Is Out on the Lakers' Defense

By the time you finish reading this sentence, the Phoenix Suns will have buried another three.

You should know what that looks like by now. It only happened 22 times in the Lakers' 116 to 121 loss to Phoenix at Staples Center tonight. Three days after cordially allowing the Denver Nuggets to run a 48-minute layup drill, the purple and gold again enraged their fans with a shameful lack of defense. Their perimeter D tonight was as lazy, haphazard and slow-footed as you'll ever see, and the Suns' array of shooters seized the opportunity to bomb the living hell out of the defending champs. The Lakers fall to 8-2 and third place in the Western Conference. Oh, and Lamar Odom has a bone bruise on his right foot that he needs to get MRI'd.

Other than that, how was the ride, Mrs. Kennedy?

Let's briefly check off the positives from tonight's game. One, the Lakers annihilated the Suns on the glass. They rebounded 51% of their own misses and turned them into 23 second-chance points. The glasswork was strong on the defensive end as well, as the Suns were held to a 26% offensive rebounding rate and 10 second-chance points. Pau Gasol was a rebounding demon, collecting 17 boards and drawing four loose-ball fouls. Lamar Odom pulled down 11 rebounds, Matt Barnes seven and Kobe Bryant nine.

Combined with decent shooting from the field, the Lakers' offensive rebounding prowess was enough to make their final offensive stats look solid. They scored 1.25 points per possession, their second-highest output of the season. Leading the way was Gasol, who bounced back from a bad performance in Denver to hit for 28 points on just 19 shots (including free-throw possessions). Kobe (25 points on 20 shots) and Odom (22 on 19) were also efficient from the field, although Kobe's floor game was a decidedly mixed bag. He had 14 assists somehow (I suspect the official scorer treated him to a little home cooking) but he gave back a lot of that with eight turnovers. His passing was weirdly off target. Also, with 10 seconds left and the Lakers down six, he wasted a possession by driving in for a layup when the comeback hopes depended on hitting a three, getting a turnover and then hitting another three. They probably weren't going to win anyway, but that decision ensured that they didn't.

(A couple possessions prior, Kobe fired up a pair of quick threes that a number of people in the comments were criticizing. Sebastian Pruiti at NBA Playbook has posted some interesting thoughts about those two shots here.)

In the big picture, generating points wasn't the problem in this one. The problem was that the concept of guarding outside shooters seems to have been eliminated from the Laker game plan. Every Phoenix possession seemed to start with Steve Nash penetrating past Derek Fisher and forcing another defender to collapse. That set in motion a series of quick passes that ended with a shooter catching the ball outside the arc with no Laker within a city block and five seconds to line up a shot. Goran Dragic buried three triples, and typically that would be a game-high total. Tonight it was only good for fourth-highest on his own team. Channing Frye hit four, Hedo Turkoglu hit five (WTF?! TRADE EVERYONE!!!) and Jason Richardson was unacceptably allowed to hit seven. There were plenty of open looks that just rimmed out, too. All credit to the Suns for generating those shots and knocking so many of them down, but the Laker D was just an epically fucked-up disaster.

I'm getting tired of writing this, but I suppose it bears mentioning: it would've been really nice to have Andrew Bynum in this game. His size in the lane deters penetration and allows the Lakers to compensate for the statuary that is Derek Fisher. With Drew there to protect the rim, guys can stick to their perimeter assignments more closely. He also would've helped destroy a Phoenix frontline that was missing Robin Lopez for all but six minutes. Lopez had to leave the game in the middle of the second quarter when Jared Dudley crashed into his knee. That's obviously unfortunate, though it did force Alvin Gentry to give a season-high 38 minutes to Frye, who responded with by far his best shooting game of the year.

Gentry's counterpart Phil Jackson made a confusing decision toward the end of the game. With 2:56 remaining, the Lakers had cut the Phoenix lead to three in no small part thanks to the play of Shannon Brown. Shannon had another efficient and productive night off the bench, scoring 12 points on nine shots in just 19 minutes of playing time. In addition, he was defending on the ball far better than Fish (which I grant is a low bar to clear). For some reason, however, Phil elected to reinsert Fish into the game and yank Shannon, which allowed Nash to resume wreaking havoc on the Lakers' D. Nash scored on the Suns' next two possessions to put the comeback nearly out of reach.

I've learned over time that you need to be careful picking on Phil's substitutions. He's playing the long game. He's trying to win a season, not just a Sunday-night contest in November. There's usually a method to his madness that's not always apparent in the moment. Still, he does make it easy to second-guess at times.

After Nash scored four straight, the Lakers made one last desperate charge. Fish hit a three (credit where credit's due) and then Odom dropped in a layup off a Kobe dish to cut the lead to two. Unfortunately, Lamar picked the wrong moment to plead for a foul and got hit with a "respecting the game" tech. Is it a stupid rule? Yes. Was it an infuriating call? Yes. Did the refs call it consistently throughout the game? No. Should Lamar have nonetheless kept his cool in that crucial moment? A thousand times yes.

There's really no excuse for the Lakers to drop a home game against a decidedly inferior opponent. At this point, we all know not to get too exercised by the odd November loss, but that doesn't mean it's any fun watching it happen. I just hope the Lakers haven't already grown bored with the regular season. It's still a bit early for that.

(P.S. - When you go to bed tonight, say a little prayer for Lamar's right foot.)











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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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