We're about to find out whether the Lakers are in any real trouble. They're probably not. Even if they lose Game Four tonight in the bowels of the desert, it remains incumbent on the Phoenix Suns to crack the Staples Center code, and they've displayed zero ability to do so this year. Four times they've played the Lakers in L.A., four times they've been slapped down and embarrassed. The Lake Show can still drop another one tonight and remain the odds-on fave in the Western Conference. Such are the pleasures of home-court advantage.
But do we really want to go down that path? The Lakers tried that against Oklahoma City, and it wasn't their proudest moment. Remember the tension before Game Five against the Thunder, the feeling that the margin for error was getting uncomfortably small? No one wants to go through that again. A win tonight would break crack the Suns' spirit and guarantee a routine choke-out on Thursday night back at Staples. More rest for the lame and infirm, more time to game-plan for Boston, less stress for Laker fans and bloggers alike, and isn't that the important thing? My stress levels haven't received nearly enough attention in this series, and I'm frankly tired of the Lakers being so selfish in this regard. I have needs, too.
Just win this one tonight, fellas. Win it for the bloggers. We don't ask for much.
To do so, the Lakers will need to start playing a little more of that "defense" I've been hearing so much about. For the series the Suns are tossing up 1.19 points per possession, a pretty awesome number. (Though less awesome than the Lakers' own 1.27 PPP.) If the Lakes don't come up with at least a few more stops, it puts enormous pressure on the offense to churn out points at a ridiculous rate, which in turn means depending on guys like Ron Artest and Shannon Brown to be shot-makers. They can fill that role from time to time, but I think we can all agree that it's better when the Lakers don't strictly need points from those dudes. Putting it another way: when Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher are all pouring in big point totals, as they did in Game Three, the Lakers shouldn't have trouble scooping the win. On a normal night, that should more than do the trick.
What worries me a little is that we haven't seen much sustained three-point bombing from the Suns in this series. In Game Two they made 10 of 24 threes, but on the whole they're making but 30% of their longballs. That seems liable to change. True, the Lakers have been strong defending the arc all season long, and their soundness on getting out on shooters (and strategically not getting out on Channing Frye) deserves plaudits. Plaudits, consider yourselves given! But the longer this series drags on, the more likely we are to see a shock-and-awe barrage from the Phoenix shooters.
That's one source of worry. Another is our close friend Amare Stoudemire, who treated us to a 42-point pounding in Game Three. Andrew Bynum will supposedly play tonight, and in theory he helps the Laker D guard the rim. In actuality, Drew is physically limited and can't give the Lakers a whole lot. That leaves Pau Gasol with the primary responsibility for keeping Amare out of his groove. On Sunday the Spanish Fly was super not up to the task. I suspect a couple days of game film and Amare Comeback talk will encourage a stouter, more energetic effort tonight.
Also... someone please don't let Robin Lopez score 20 points. It's absurd I even need to type that sentence.
All eyes, my own included, will be on the refs tonight, to see whether they again grant FTAs to Phoenix in gobs. No need to rehash our troubled feelings about the state of officiating in Laker playoff games. C.A. reviewed the topic beautifully yesterday. Suffice it to say, unless the Lakers' and Suns' respective free-throw totals revert to a more even equilibrium, there will be unhappy commenters aplenty in these parts.
When the Lakers have the ball, issue number one is figuring out the Phoenix zone. It shouldn't be that hard. The Suns aren't playing some exotic, trapping scheme no one has seen before. It's just a two-three, and if the Lakers, for all the well-compensated brainpower they employ, can't solve it, everyone involved deserves a pay-cut. Keep the ball moving, don't get impatient and fire up a bunch of threes, use the high post and baseline... this is high-school level tactical work. It would surprise and disappoint if the Lakers tonight look as befuddled as they did in the second and fourth quarters on Sunday.
Pau needs to get more shots. I know you've heard that before, but he does. He attempted only 15 in Game Three, fewer than Lamar Odom despite being on the court for 45 minutes to Lamar's 35. Against a team as dreadful at defending the paint as the Suns, that's just not right. Pau's pretty much out of the business of missing field-goal attempts. His efficiency in the playoffs has been outstanding. More shots for Pau = fewer Artest and Odom threes = more pointage for the purple and gold. It's science, son.
There are two storylines that'll get play but won't, I suspect, really matter tonight. One is the minutes Kobe and Pau logged in Game Three. They both sat out just a few here and there, but I doubt the importance. The Lakers' two superstars keep themselves in top shape, it's not like this is a back-to-back with travel involved, and anyhoo their total wasn't not that much more than the minutes played by Steve Nash and Stoudemire. Residual fatigue shouldn't lend either side a competitive advantage.
The second chatter-font is the Phil Jackson contract situayshe. This story isn't going away until the offseason, when it's announced that Phil is either still the Laker coach or not. As a big-picture cloud for the Laker franchise, it's real. As a near-term "distraction"... honey, please. Anyone suggesting as much betrays a poor understanding of how things work in the Lakerverse. Publicly aired contract worries, internal cross-bitching, media-stoked drama... that's ordinary course with this franchise. It doesn't move the needle. What would send most team cultures into visible crisis makes the inhabitants of Planet Laker yawn.
Thanks for reading, and let us know in the poll what kind of vibe you're picking up for tonight's contest. DO EEET.
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