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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

All of a sudden, Lakers find themselves facing a battle

The Lakers run into an unexpected problem with the Suns' 2-3 zone defense in a 118-109 loss in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

May 23, 2010|Mark Heisler

From Phoenix — Just what the Lakers needed, a real series.

Now a virtual certainty that they will play rough, tough Boston -- should they advance, of course -- the Lakers found themselves needing a quick knockout in the Western Conference finals, but they didn't get it Sunday.

Instead, the Phoenix Suns climbed off the canvas and smote them, 118-109, meaning that the Lakers either put the Suns back on the ropes Tuesday or the series will go from "real" to "tied."

The Lakers have knees to rest, or at least Andrew Bynum's, although Bynum preserved himself admirably, picking up four fouls so quickly that he played eight minutes.

Concluding that it wasn't one of those nights when Bynum was going to help dominate anyone, Coach Phil Jackson went with Lamar Odom, even though it was one of those games that Odom often plays after big performances when no one insults him, as Amare Stoudemire did.

Jackson even said afterward that he'd ask Bynum if he wants to rest.

Bynum said no thanks.

Aside from watching Stoudemire put up 42 points, staving off the possibility of Game 4 being his last with the Suns, the Lakers ran into an unexpected problem with Phoenix's 2-3 zone defense, which they had sliced to ribbons at Staples Center.

Not that the Suns had looked like they could play man-to-man defense, either.

Late in Game 2, Bryant ran a pick-and-roll, hitting Pau Gasol, who went in for an uncontested layup.

Noted ESPN commentator Jalen Rose, over the video that showed Bryant yelling at Gasol to go to the hoop: "Kobe only told him three times."

The Lakers came into Sunday's game shooting 58% in the series, which, Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry noted, couldn't continue, at least not for long.

"I do think that they played about as well as they can play," Gentry said before the game. "I sure as hell hope so, anyway.

"We have to play better defense. That doesn't mean we have to get them to shooting 40%, but we have to get them down into the 40s.

"Even if it's the high 40s."

So, in the first quarter, when Kobe Bryant put the pedal to the metal, scoring 15 points and making seven of his nine shots, the Suns held the Lakers to -- you guessed it -- 58%.

At that point, Gentry was out of good ideas and went back to the zone.

"To be honest with you guys, in practice yesterday it was the worst it's ever been," Gentry said afterward.

"I mean, it really was. I got really upset because I didn't think it was very good at all. So when they started the game making a ton of shots, we said, well, we've got to give it a try.

"And then we gave it a try and came up with some stops. So we just said we'd play it the whole second half. I mean, it's easier than trying to guard those guys on the inside and it's easier than trying to guard Kobe."

Of course, that would be saying something if the Suns' zone in practice was worse than it had been at Staples Center.

The first time they lined up in it in Game 1, whoever had the zone in front of the basket would let Gasol catch the ball five feet from the hoop, turn around and make an uncontested jumper.

On the Lakers' second possession, Odom drove the ball from the top of the circle to the hoop and laid it in.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, these weren't those Suns on Sunday, or that Odom.

Instead, with the middle packed, Bynum making a token appearance and Odom missing seven of nine shots, the Lakers' inside game went out as if the Suns had hit a switch.

Reduced to trying to beat the Suns from outside -- "over the top," as the coaches say -- the Lakers shot a mortal 44% after the first quarter.

That made the Suns'118 points enough. In Games 1 and 2, it would have gotten them beaten by 10 and six points, respectively.

Thus ended the Lakers' eight-game win streak, including their last two games against Oklahoma City, their four in the romp over Utah and the first two against the Suns, when the road to the NBA Finals looked as if it was strewn with rose petals.

To see what it's really strewn with, or which way it leads, tune in Tuesday.

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