Posted: Wednesday May 26, 2010 2:56AM ; Updated: Wednesday May 26, 2010 10:02AM
Chris Ballard
Chris Ballard>INSIDE THE NBA

Suns' zone defense unravels work of unselfish Kobe, passive Lakers

Story Highlights

The Lakers have relied on too many jumpers against the Suns' active zone

Phoenix won Games 3 and 4 in different ways, suggesting it can pull a series upset

Kobe Bryant has already expressed the Lakers' need to play with more 'urgency'

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(1) Lakers vs. (3) Suns
Series tied 2-2
115 106
Game 5: @LAL Thur., May 27, 9 p.m., TNT
Game 6: @PHX Sat., May 29, 8:30 p.m., TNT
Game 7: @LAL Mon., May 31, 9 p.m.*, TNT

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Kobe Bryant registered 38 points and 10 assists in Game 4, but only took four shots total in the fourth quarter.
Noah Graham/NBAE Getty Images
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NBA Team Page

PHOENIX -- There was a moment last night, late in the second quarter as the Phoenix Suns reserves were taking turns seeing who could hit the most uncontested three-pointers, where it appeared to dawn upon the thousands of garishly clad folks around me at US Airways Arena: We might just win this thing. And not just the game at hand, but perhaps even this series. After all, the Suns' gimmicky zone was looking less gimmicky and more permanent by the minute, the Lakers big men were befuddled and Channing Frye's jump shot -- apparently sequestered at the border this past week -- finally cleared immigration. But the most promising sign in Phoenix's 115-106 win -- or ominous one, if you're a Lakers fan -- was the play of Kobe Bryant.

In short, it was spectacular. Not Kobe-goes-off spectacular, or Kobe-jutting-chin spectacular, both of which usually involve Bryant taking and making all manner of ridiculous shots while his teammates stand by idly, waiting for passes that will never come. No, as in Game 3, this was the Good Kobe. He created for his teammates (10 assists), he hit the boards (seven rebounds) and he made what assistant coach Brian Shaw calls the "hockey assist," the pass that leads to the pass that gets the assist. Sure, he scored 38 points, but it only took him 22 shots, and almost all of those were good ones. If anyone wondered what happens when you turn Bryant into a spot-up shooter, here was the answer: You get a taller, scowlier Steve Kerr. With his feet set, Bryant drained threes (6-for-9 on the night) and plenty of long twos. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise. According to Synergy Sports, Bryant was one of the best shooters in the league when left unguarded in a catch-and-shoot situation this season, averaging 1.306 points per shot attempt.

Still, he shoots so many tough jumpers that we don't think of him as a spot-up guy. Before the game, I asked Lakers assistant Chuck Person, who has worked with Bryant on his shooting this season, if the two ever had shooting contests. Person said no, then laughed and added "That wouldn't be fair." The insinuation was that Bryant couldn't keep up with The Rifleman -- as deadly a shooter as there was during his heyday -- but he certainly could have tonight.

So here then was the problem: Usually when the Lakers get Good Kobe, they win. Remember last year in the playoffs against Houston? Bryant did his one-man-show thing for a couple games, carrying the load, but it was only when he became a floor general again that the Lakers pulled away from the Rockets.

Now, the Lakers are faced with the opposite situation. It's strange to suggest for a player who scored 38 points, but Tuesday night Bryant probably needed to shoot more. In the fourth quarter, when the Suns pulled away, he only took four shots, with three coming in the final two minutes. Not that it was always his fault. At one point, with six minutes left, he stood outside the arc as Derek Fisher dribbled across the lane, in search of who knows what. Open for a moment, Bryant held his hands out to receive a pass, but none came. Perturbed, Bryant began clapping, then hopping up and down and, finally, he roared at Fisher, who nonetheless proceeded to launch a desperation three late in the shot clock.

Considering how well he was shooting, Bryant had every right to be pissed. Still, afterward he didn't want to talk about the Lakers offense, focusing almost entirely on the other side of the ball. Asked about taking only four shots in the fourth quarter, he replied, "We didn't lose the game because of that, we lost the game because our defense sucked."

Watching Bryant up at the podium, lips pursed and eyes narrowed, alternating between thoughtful frowns and angry frowns, it was clear this loss bothered him more than most. Gone was the Kobe who told the media not to worry after the Thunder tied the Lakers 2-2 in the first round. Bryant was angry, using phrases like "sense of urgency" and "we need to be ready to play."

It was exactly what you wanted to see out of a leader if you were a teammate, coach or fan (and a striking contrast to LeBron James' nonchalant, hubristic manner during the Cavs-Celtics series. Seriously, this summer James should do nothing other than watch tape of Bryant -- not just on the court, but in every basketball-related moment -- so he can understand what intensity looks and feels like).

Bryant was right, of course: The Lakers defense cost them the game. But, as he also pointed out, their lethargic D may have been caused, in part, because they spent so much time worrying about how to beat the Suns' zone. And what a zone it was (as coach Alvin Gentry observed with a wry grin while walking down the hallway after the win, "We're not giving up on our girlie zone.") Phoenix started each possession by matching up, then passed off offensive players to the next man while trying to keep the baseline protected.

After Game 3, Gentry and his staff had watched tape of their own defense and pretended they were Lakers, asking, How can we beat this? They found two potential weak spots: The pick-and-roll with Bryant and powering the ball inside.

So, in Game 4 the Suns endeavored to make Bryant a driver in the first instance and collapse on the interior and then close out on the shooters in the second. The Lakers countered by flooding the zone, which is how Bryant got a succession of open looks on the weak side wing in the first half. When he continued to drain them, Gentry adjusted, telling his players to essentially stay with Bryant at all times. It wasn't technically a box-and-one -- the Suns didn't follow Bryant through the key -- but it's about as close to one as you'll see in the NBA ("Though believe me, we thought about the box-and-one," Gentry said later, only partly joking).

In the locker room after the game, the Lakers had already transitioned from mocking the zone to truly hating it. While Lamar Odom stood and talked about how he hadn't "seen this much zone since ninth grade," and how he expected to see it from now on, "every game, every minute," Ron Artest sat a couple chairs down, a towel around his waist and his feet in ice, staring at the box score glumly. Next to him, Luke Walton was explaining to a reporter how the team, "needed to be more aggressive and re-set on the swing pass." Artest looked up from his stat-induced stupor.

"Yo, we didn't re-set, did we?'

Walton shook his head. "Nah, we'd just swing, swing, swing."

"And when we did re-set," Artest said, a light coming on, "it worked, right?"

"Yeah, and when we were aggressive, even if we missed, we got the tip-ins and the layups."

Artest stopped to think about this. Walton grimaced. And, in that moment of quiet, one could hear, from somewhere far back in the locker room, one of their teammates summing up what has proven, at least for two games, to be the most unlikely Kobe Stopper of all.

"F---in zone."

 
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