The Phoenix Suns have made the Western Conference Finals a lot more interesting than most could have hoped for after the Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.
Behind the support of its home crowd, Phoenix took Games 3 and 4 against the defending champions after looking weak, uninspired, and apathetic.
I’ve already written about coach Alvin Gentry’s timely decision to have his squad try a zone defense on the Lakers, but in Game 4 on Tuesday night, that defensive scheme wasn’t what won the game for the Suns.
No, it was a return to fundamentals, instead, that sparked the Suns to a series-squaring victory.
When you think about Phoenix Suns basketball, fundamentalism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for most. They run, they shoot a lot of threes, they have no back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they tend to “relax” on defense. But Tuesday’s game was a good illustration of how an unconventional team like Phoenix can win by embracing the basics of basketball.
This approach to the game manifested itself if three primary ways: (1) a balanced scoring effort; (2) superb bench production; and (3) exceptional shooting discipline leading to streaks.
In the usual Suns game, the offensive production is funneled through Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, as they effortlessly run the pick-and-roll play for easy points. Throw in the occasional outburst from Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, or Leandro Barbosa, and that’s the typical makeup.
On Tuesday night, though, that wasn’t the case. The team’s leading scorer was Stoudemire, but he put up a modest 21 points. Steve Nash contributed only 15. More importantly, though, the Suns had six scorers in double figures, and everyone who played in the game posted no fewer than 6 points.
Spreading the wealth with that kind of ball distribution allows the whole team to get in to a groove, preventing the Lakers from keying in on anyone in particular on defense. Usually, Phil Jackson can sit back and expect his team will defend Nash and Stoudemire while not having to worry about anyone else. In Game 4, everyone was hitting shots, so it spread the Lakers’ defense thin to the point that it couldn’t keep up.
In a similar vein, the Suns’ bench played brilliant basketball against the Lakers. Led by a gritty performance in relief of Nash by Goran “Enter the” Dragic (8 points, 8 dimes), the Suns drilled the Lakers with 54 bench points and were absolutely on fire from the perimeter. At one point in the game, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa, and Jared Dudley hit consecutive threes to ignite the crowd and knock LA back on its heels — it was a meaningful turning point for the game.
The solid play by the reserves allows Nash and Stoudemire to get their well-deserved and much-needed rest without a cause for concern. In the fourth quarter, Gentry even elected to stay with his second unit a few minutes longer than usual because it was playing so well. That’s a good sign for your team.
Lastly, the Suns used the power of momentum to their full advantage. I mentioned above that streak of back-to-back-to-back three-pointers; those weren’t lucky shots. Phoenix spread the floor very well, creating space for the shooters on the perimeter. Each one of those shots was sufficiently open.
But it takes rare confidence for Barbosa and Dudley to fire off those long-range bombs after Frye’s make. They sensed the opportunity to create some distance between the Lakers and themselves, and they took advantage. They knew they could hit the shots, and they had the power of the crowd behind them as further encouragement.
If the Phoenix Suns can continue to pair this fundamental execution with their effective zone defense, the Lakers have to be careful. Sure, the series is going back to the Staples Center, where the Lakers play much better than they do on the road. That won’t stop the stranglehold that the Suns’ zone has on their paint production, though. If the perimeter players can find their rhythm from the outside like they did in Game 4, the Lakers won’t stand a chance.
It’s the Phoenix offense at its best — with a twist of defensive prowess and fundamental execution.