It's come up a few times on the site, so it's not exactly a secret, but in the interests of full disclosure everyone should know up front that I am a Suns fan. They are my second team, my mistress team if you will, and there was a time when they were my first team. The late 80s Kevin Johnson-Tom Chambers Suns were probably my favorite team of all time, and their 4-1 series victory over the Lakers 20 seasons ago (yikes!) was one of the two most satisfying playoff series victories of my fandom (Clippers over Nuggets in 2006 being the other one of course).
So it feels pretty good to have the Suns back even in the Western Conference Finals, tied 2-2 with the Lakers after two pretty nice wins in Arizona. I said on Sunday that it was up to Phoenix to salvage what had been a pretty dismal post-season, and indeed they have. (Actually, it's also worth noting that it's another case of the famous ClipperSteve reverse mojo - since I whined about all the sweeps and all the blowouts, the teams behind in the Conference Finals have gone three and oh, including an overtime win for the Magic in Boston.)
Unfortunately, I missed the last nine minutes of Suns-Lakers Game 4. With champions to be crowned on BOTH Dancing With the Stars AND American Idol, and a wife and two adolescents in the house, even my DVR couldn't save me tonight. The Suns had just taken a two point lead at 89-87 when Tom Bergeron and Brooke Burke took over my TV screen. Of course the Suns made three consecutive threes soon after, stretching the lead to 11, where it more or less stayed the rest of the game, and we're coming back to LA all knotted up.
There are a handful of really fascinating things happening in this series (more specifically in these last two games) to keep an eye on. I don't claim to have any great insights here - in fact, I'm more than a little baffled. But it will be paramount to see how these factors play out on Thursday in Staples Center, as they may determine the winner of this series.
The Suns bench. Admit it, you're just as shocked as I am about this, right? Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye and Lou Amundson? With the exception of Barbosa, I doubt that even the most savvy and fervent Phoenix fans believed that any of these guys were legitimate NBA rotation players going into the season. Phoenix' fatal flaw for many seasons has been a shameful lack of depth, and this team appeared to be the thinnest in years. Instead, the Phoenix bench has been the difference for them throughout the playoffs, and especially tonight. All five of their backups were in double digits for their plus/minus tonight, while all five Phoenix starters were negative (and all four Lakers subs were also negative). So you're saying, "Sure, the Suns reserves played well against the terrible Lakers bench. Big deal." Well that's true, but it's not the whole story. For one thing, did we really think that the Suns bench was better going into the series? More importantly, the Suns reserves played a cumulative 115 minutes tonight, compared to only 66 from the Lakers reserves (and more than half of those from Lamar Odom). So mathematically, it's obvious that the Suns reserves were outplaying at least of few Lakers starters tonight. The key would seem to be Channing Frye. After going an incomprehensible 1 for 20 in the first three games, he was 4 for 8 (all of them three pointers) tonight. If he can manage one good game in LA, the Suns certainly have a chance in this series.
It's also interesting to note that when he coached the Suns, Mike D'Antoni had the shortest bench in the league. And it got even shorter in the playoffs. Back in 2006, Eddie House got some consideration for sixth man of the year, playing over 17 minutes per game during the regular season - and then got about 7 minutes per in the playoffs when you factor in the five DNP-CDs he got against the Clippers. So while Alvin Gentry may have brought back some of the D'Antoni playbook in Phoenix, he certainly has a different philosophy about minutes. D'Antoni's not the only coach in the NBA who goes with a tighter rotation in the playoffs - almost everyone does in fact. The Celtics are down to playing essentially 8 guys (and having those 8 guys healthy is the difference between domination this year and elimination last year). Gentry plays ten, and not only that, he plays his reserves as a unit for long minutes. It's pretty much unheard of in playoff basketball (Boston doesn't even have a backup point guard). And it's working. Go figure.
The Suns zone. Zone defenses don't work in the NBA. Teams don't use them for extended periods because NBA offenses are too good and they find the seams in the zone eventually. The only way to succeed on defense in the NBA is to accept the challenge to shut down your opponent, to 'man up' (in more ways than one). That's the conventional wisdom anyway. And the Suns have thrown it out the window. As I mentioned, I didn't watch all of this game, but every second I watched, the Suns employed a zone. And damned if it didn't work. To be sure, this is not your high school coach's 2-3. It's a sort of a hybrid matchup zone, where the Phoenix players are hyper-aware of Kobe's whereabouts. It's not a box-and-one, but at times it feels like it, with someone (usually Hill or Dudley) playing tight man defense on Kobe when he has the ball, and the other four Phoenix players shading towards him as well. Interestingly, Bryant was almost unstoppable tonight despite all the extra attention, scoring 38 points on 22 shots. But his teammates really let him down. The Lakers not wearing number 24 attempted 43 three point field goals in two games in Phoenix, making 9 of them. That's an obscene number of threes (especially when you consider that Kobe has taken 17 himself for a two game Lakers total of 60!). The zone is designed to give a lot of attention to Kobe, to clog up the middle, and to force the other Lakers to take threes with a guy running at them. Mission accomplished. Of course, if the Lakers get hot and make a bunch (they made over 50% of their three pointers in the LA games, taking about half as many) then it's a different story. But if Phil can't convince them to penetrate the zone some more, then they could be in big trouble. (The other big factor in game four was the ineffectual Pau Gasol. I don't expect that to happen again.)
Rebounding. The Suns outrebounded the Lakers 51-36 tonight. That's almost unfathomable. The entire story in games one and two was the Lakers' length. "Oh, they're just too long for the Suns, the series is over because of those long, long Lakers." Also consider that one of the big knocks against playing zone defense is that it supposedly hurts your defensive rebounding, because players don't have box out assignments. (As an aside, that's a load of crap. Your box out assignment is anybody wearing a different colored uniform when the shot goes up. The idea that it's harder to box out when you're playing a zone is not true. It's always hard work to box out - and many NBA players do a poor job of it, regardless of the defensive scheme. But playing zone changes nothing if you're willing to put in the effort.) So how did the Suns outrebound the Lakers on both ends? The short answer is that they wanted it more, and you can bet that every single Lakers player, starting with Bynum and Gasol, is getting an earful on the plane back to LA about that particular stat. There's really no excuse for it.
Can the Suns bench perform as well in LA as they did in Phoenix? Can the zone defense continue to confound the Lakers' offense and force them to settle for threes? Watch the bench points, the number of three point attempts by the Lakers and the rebounding stats closely in game five on Thursday. Those factors will determine the winner.
One more thing. GO SUNS!