The Phoenix Suns showed the Los Angeles Lakers that they aren’t just going to roll over and allow the defending champs to waltz into the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year.
On Sunday night, the Suns defeated the Lakers on their home court by a score of 118-109 on the strength of a defensive effort absent in Games 1 and 2, in which the Lakers scored 128 points and 124 points, respectively.
But aside from the advantage of playing in front of their fans at home on Sunday, there was another reason the Suns excelled on defense. Noticing the Lakers’ complete obliteration on the front line, coach Alvin Gentry decided to make a change. Deviating from the man-to-man defense he instituted in the first two contests, in Game 3 he had his team playing a 2-3 zone defense.
Continuously discussed before and during the beginning of the series was the Suns’ deficiency in the front court against the trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom off the bench. And that was only magnified by Amar’e Stoudemire’s comment that Odom “got lucky” with his 19 rebounds in Game 1.
The goal of the zone defense, particularly the 2-3, allows the defense to swarm easily on Gasol and the others down low (or deny the entry pass altogether and keep the ball out of the paint), nullifying their advantage and making any shot in the immediate basket area a difficult one.
There are typically drawbacks to such a defensive scheme, though. With a good passer in the post like Gasol for the Lakers, the Suns run the risk of a kick-out pass to an open shooter. With three men left clogging the middle, that leaves only two defenders remaining to close out on three possible jump shooters.
Luckily for the Suns, the Lakers are not a great perimeter-shooting team. Other than Kobe Bryant, who played very well (36 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists), their other guards aren’t very good three-point shooters. Ron Artest, specifically, has been dreadful from the outside thus far.
If the Suns can continue to execute on defense, the zone should help them deep into this series. But as soon as the Lakers set in to the mindset that they have to attack the zone with drives from the outside, it could wreak some havoc and get Phoenix into early foul trouble.
That said, it’s really their only option right now. In Games 1 and 2, the Suns were lame ducks looking to be blown away by the Lakers. In Game 3, they showed what most were expecting coming off of a series sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. The series should get interesting from here on out.