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Suns 115, Lakers 106: The more things change, the more the Lakers better hope things stay the same

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I've seen this game too many times, and I'm sick of it already.  You might as well keep it in your DVR for a while, and next year, when the Lakers go into a series up 2-1, just play this one back on repeat.  If you didn't recognize tonight's performance, I don't think you qualify as a Lakers fan, because this was vintage.  Once again, the Lakers were put up against a dangerous and desperate team in a Game 4, and once again they were out-worked, out-muscled, and out-smarted by a team that had no business doing any of those things.  Once again, they decided that 80% would be good enough, and the Houston Rockets er, Denver Nuggets um, Oklahoma City Thunder oh, Phoenix Suns made them pay for it.

There's both a storm cloud and a silver lining to be taken from the comparison.  One can optimistically point out that every single one of those game 4 debacles was followed by a resounding game 5 win.  On the other hand, you can only play with fire so long before you finally get burned, and the Suns carry within them the capability to do so more than any other opponent the Lakers have shared these circumstances with (except perhaps Denver last year).

I want to be clear in giving credit to the Suns for winning this game.  They did everything you've heard they are capable of doing, but probably didn't believe in.  They played good defense.  They rebounded well.  They were scrappy.  The bench provided them a huge lift.  They (had periods in which they) shot the ball well from the outside.  It was a complete performance, they deserved to win.  If the Lakers had come correct tonight, the Suns still might have won, and the only reason it's a might is because Kobe went Nova in a way that only a legend can.  38 points on only 22 shots, and he only got 4 FTs to help that mark out.  There would be no shame in the Suns for losing if it came at the hands of Kobe's performance.  But there is no shame to be had, because everyone else wearing that forum blue dropped the ball.

Hell, who am I kidding, Kobe dropped the ball, too.  Don't get me wrong, his offensive display was spectacular, and was the only thing keeping this game from being a blow out the likes of which we haven't seen since .. oh wait, nevermind, the Thunder blew us out just like this 10 games ago.  But, when analyzing everything that went wrong for the Lakers (which was everything not including Kobe's offense), Kobe deserves just as much blame as anybody else.  He got out-hustled to so many offensive boards.  Goran Dragic wanted the ball more than he did.  Jason Richardson did too.  I counted at least 3 times that Kobe attempted to obtain a defensive rebound by casually watching the ball come towards him, and then act shocked when some random Suns guard decided to go get it.  These were the plays that happened all night long, to every Laker on the roster, and it is how a team like the Suns, who lack for height at every turn as compared the Lakers, were able to grab an astonishing 18 offensive rebounds.  44% of their missed shots resulted in another chance to score. 

Of course, any Laker fan will point out (if they took the time to do the research, which I did) that the Suns were charged with a grand total of one loose ball foul all night, which is pretty laughable.  The Suns were clearly swiping at the ball every single time a missed shot came off the rim, and while I respect the effort and love the hustle, the idea that they only caught arm instead of ball once in the full 48 is insane.  But fuck it, the Lakers weren't going after the ball hard enough to make it clear they were getting fouled, which falls right back into that 80% mentality.  They waited for the referees to protect them, instead of forcing the referees to protect them.  Despite the unfairness, they got what they deserved.

Outside of the absolutely pathetic rebounding, the defense played by the starters against Phoenix's staring unit wasn't too bad.  Pau Gasol still struggled with Amar'e Stoudemire a bit at times, but STAT's line of 21 points on 20 possessions wasn't nearly as strong as Game 3's performance.  Robin Lopez went back to being Robin Lopez, though he sure enjoyed putting extra mustard on any screen involving Derek Fisher.  The Lakers did a good job of containing Steve Nash and Jason Richardson, and Grant Hill was no hero either.  As iffy as raw +/- is as a statistic, it doesn't lie tonight.  Every single Suns starter was on the wrong side of even.  Which brings us to how the game was decided.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Suns bench absolutely destroyed the Lakers tonight, and with it, they brought every gain made by the Lakers over the past few weeks back into question.  Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar were beyond terrible.  I saw a few people complaining about the game being 5 on 8, and that's cute, but I thought it was much worse than that.  For those precious few minutes at the start of the 2nd and the start of the 4th, the Lakers were playing 3 on 7.  Farmar and Brown displayed all the basketball acumen of a couple of AAU 5th graders.  They have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to beat a zone, and when they are both on the court, you can bet the Suns defense will look fantastic.  Even worse, they can't even waste time properly, instead preferring to play the game at a pace which fell right into the Suns hands.  It's cool though, it's not like they let the Suns bench get into a tremendous rhythm and absolutely slaughter the Lakers on off ... wait, what do you mean the Suns scored 1.78 POINTS PER POSSESSION IN THE 2ND QUARTER?

Regarding the bench, Phil Jackson's rotations absolutely submarined the Lakers' chances tonight.  That's no rarity, it seems to happen quite often, even if PJ has a mystical way of getting it right in the end.  But Phil needs to understand and compensate for Andrew Bynum's liability against the Suns offense.  Bynum can not get up and down the floor with the Suns when the pace is high, and the combination of Bynum's limitation and Farmar and Brown's stupidity virtually guarantees the type of destruction we saw Phoenix's bench hand down.

We've also seen the return of Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, completely stoppable offensive forces.  Artest apparently saw Channing Frye play well, and decided somebody needed to fill the void of offensive suckitude that Frye left behind.  Artest's hesitation every time he touched the ball returned, inevitably leading to the Suns getting to reset the defense while Ron passed it back for the Lakers to start over again, or even worse, launch a contested jumper from the same spot that he was open from 2 seconds earlier.  Both he and LO are sub 30% from 3, and its not for a lack of trying on either guy's part.

So, we're right back where we started.  The Lakers can once again be defended by playing 2 on 5 and leaving the other 3 guys open as can be.  The Suns once again have a bench that can end a game in the 16 minutes they see together on the court.  Channing Frye is no longer a liability.  It was nice to have the Lakers play well, and with extended effort, for a nice stretch there, but it was apparently foolhardy to expect that to last forever.  Now, they've once again let a team feel good about themselves, get into a rhythm, and feel confident in their ability to pull off the upset.  The Lakers have been here before, and they've struck the up-and-comers down every time before.  Momentum means nothing to them, which may explain why they are willing to throw it away so casually.  But all the Suns need is one game in which their outside shot falls at a high rate, one game in which their comprehensive offensive power goes full throttle, in order to take command of this series.

If the Lakers do go on to lose this series, and I still don't think they will, it will go down as a monumental embarrassment.  Not because the Suns are a poor opponent, and not because it's unfathomable for the Suns to beat the Lakers.  No, it will be an embarrassment because it means the Lakers were defeated by a fucking gimmick.  It will mean the defending champions failed to display a level of basketball acumen that can be found at any local high school.  The Suns have won two straight games because the Lakers have failed to properly destroy a zone defense.  At this level, that is utterly incomprehensible.











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