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Lakers 109, Suns 118: What Is This "De-Fense" You Speak Of?


For one night at least, Amare Stoudemire has his revenge. Justly disparaged over the past week for his dumbfoundingly bad defense and impolitic comments about Lamar Odom, the Phoenix power forward came correct tonight, scoring 42 points to spearhead a 118 to 109 Suns victory in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals. The loss severs the Lakers' eight-game winning streak and chops their series lead to one game. Game Four is on Tuesday night in Phoenix.

In building a two-oh series lead in Los Angeles, the Lakers used a volcanic offense to hide some wanky D. They'd never really stopped the Suns' attack for more than brief stretches at a time, but the volume of their own points production made that failing irrelevant. Not tonight. After the Lakers ripped them apart for 32 seemingly routine points in the first quarter, the Suns played zone almost exclusively the rest of the way. The result wasn't a total lockdown, but it didn't need to be. Helped by a sizeable gap in free-throw attempts, the Phoenix offense did its usual thing, tallying 1.23 points per possession. With that sort of output, they just needed the zone to stall the Laker attack here and there. Play a wee bit of defense at times, and you're likely to win a game in this series. Tonight was the Suns' turn.

We Laker fans can take solace from one thing: Phoenix still has no idea how to stop, or even irritate, Kobe Bryant. He blew up yet again this evening, this time logging 36 points on 28 shots (using the term shots to include free-throw possessions). In just the first quarter he scored 15 on 7-of-9 shooting. Between Kobe's hot hand and teamwide success on the offensive glass, the Lake Show appeared to be chugging along, untroubled by life away from Staples, except... well, except for one small thing.

The whistles. Dude, the whistles. The Suns attempted 11 FTAs in the first period to the Lakers' zero. Amare alone was awarded seven freebies in the first period. Most of them seemed fairly earned, as he attacked Pau Gasol on the dribble and got to the rim repeatedly. The Lakers, however, weren't getting the same calls on the other end.

At the beginning of the second quarter, Alvin Gentry dialed up the zone, and the Laker offense fell to pieces. The passes got sloppy, to the tune of six turnovers in the period. Unable to get the ball inside, or unwilling to exercise the requisite patience and discipline, the outside shots started going up, and all those looks that went down at Staples didn't enjoy the same friendly bounce. Lamar had an especially gruesome quarter: 0 for 5 from the field, 0 for 2 from the line, two fouls, and two turnovers. Beautiful. As team the Lakers could still barely get to the stripe: only three FTAs to the Suns' nine, leading to an unthinkable halftime free-throw margin of 20 to 3 in Phoenix's favor. The offensive glass is what kept the Lakers in the game. In the first half, they rebounded 29% of their misses, leading to 13 second-chance points. They nonetheless trailed by seven at the break.

The Lakers finally solved the Phoenix zone in the third. The ball movement perked up, turnovers fell, and shots started going down. In 23 third-quarter possessions the Lakers scored on 16 of them. It helped that a few calls started going their way. They couldn't make a real run, though, because they couldn't come up with nearly enough stops. Amare took advantage of some epically awful Gasol defense to score 16 points in the period. Pau was a step slow all night long and never made the adjustments necessary to force Amare to use his left hand. After a brilliant postseason run so far, I suppose Pau was due for an off-night, but he has to get his focus back for Game Four.

In the fourth, Phoenix slowly but inexorably pulled away. The Lakers coughed the rock up on six of their first nine trips, sabotaging their own comeback attempt. Meanwhile, Amare continued to work, Robin Lopez recaptured some of his Game One magic, and Jason Richardson nailed a couple timely bombs to put the game out of reach. Despite converting two-point looks at a punishing rate and getting Phoenix past the foul limit early in the period, the Lakers ran an impatient attack that was way too dependent on three-point attempts. They fired up an insane 11 threes in the final period, making only two of them. That's not gonna get it done, hombres.

Andrew Bynum took a step back tonight. He played only eight minutes, scored only two and was in foul trouble from the beginning. His absence made it easier for Amare to dive toward the basket over and over. Unfortunately, it's not clear what, if anything, he'll be able to give L.A. in Game Four. Phil Jackson said after tonight's game that Drew might not play on Tuesday.

The other big source of FAIL was the Laker bench. So good in Games One and Two, they reverted to their previously shaky form, as Lamar, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar provided only 18 points on 26 shots. Just an awful waste of possessions that the Lakers couldn't afford, given how they took the night off from playing any defense. Let's do give a tip of the cap to Derek Fisher, who intangible'd his way to 18 points in the losing effort.

So there won't be any sweepage of this series. Alas. The Lakers do still occupy the high ground. They will, however, need play a bit harder and smarter if they want to maintain it.











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