For those of you who listened to my podcast last week with HoopsAddict.com's Rashad Mobley, you know we talked a lot of basketball that day: The NBA Draft, his Wizards, a ton on the Boston-Orlando series.
But when it came time to talk about the Suns and Lakers, we simply glossed over those two, with me even saying, "There are only so many ways to say that the Lakers are just better than the Suns." At the time, both Rashad and I figured that Phoenix might be able to ride their home crowd to a Game 3 win, but after that the series would be over. Game, set, match.
Well, just six days later, here we are, with the Suns having tied the Western Conference Finals at 2-2 on Tuesday night, leaving the Lakers confused, bickering, and looking for answers.
So how did this happen? How did a matchup that was seemingly as one sided as a pie eating contest between Rosie O'Donnell and Jennifer Aniston turn into a series? I'm still not sure.
Either way, here are six thoughts from Tuesday night's improbable Phoenix win.
1. This Zone Defense Has The Lakers Baffled: It seems simple really.
In Game's 1 and 2, Los Angeles forced the ball down low and was literally scoring at will against the Suns, shooting close to 60 percent as a team in those first two games. You read that correctly...60 PERCENT!! Those are like UConn women vs. East Tennessee Tech kinda numbers. So after two games it was only logical that Phoenix at least try to play a zone, right?
Here's the thing though, while the move was logical, it was also completely illogical that after seeing the zone in Game 3, the Lakers were unable to make adjustments in Game 4. It was almost like they showed up expecting that all which ailed them in Game 3 would all of a sudden go away, simply because they were the Lakers. Only after a game full of spotty play, turnovers, and back-rimmed jump-shots, L.A. was all of a sudden left looking like my 94-year-old grandma staring at a computer screen: Confused, frustrated and utterly helpless.
Beyond that, the zone highlighted the one thing I don't think any of us fully realized until the last two games: Other than Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers really aren't a good jump-shooting team. The zone put pressure on Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar and Ron Artest to knock down three's and they just haven't been able to.
Artest has been an especially large headache for Lakers fans, as he's gone just 3 for 12 from beyond the arc since the Suns switched to the zone, and is shooting just 25 percent from three during the playoffs. Ugh...
And as much as Artest's defense is really, really important against guys like Kevin Durant, his offense is leaving an awful lot to be desired. This series in specific is really the first time I've felt that the Lakers letting Trevor Ariza walk off their championship team last summer was a big mistake. Think he could have stretched that zone a bit the last few games?
While I still think the Lakers will win this series, that's no longer a guarantee. Say they win Game 5 at home Thursday, then lose Game 6 in Phoenix (And after the last two night's is there any reason to think they won't?). We all know that anything can happen in a Game 7.
Boy let me tell ya, what a difference a week makes, huh?
2. When The Suns Are Playing Their Absolute Best, There Isn't A More Entertaining Team In All of Sports: Let's go back to Tuesday night, early in the fourth quarter.
After Phoenix had controlled the game for the first three quarters and change, here come the Lakers. The game quickly turned into back and forth, edge of your seat excitement. As I ended up tweeting, it was actually the first time that I felt like I was watching NBA Playoff basketball during these entire conference finals. Which obviously isn't a good thing. Whatever, at least Game 4 was entertaining!
But as the game got more and more tight, I got more and more nervous. The Suns started turning the ball over, missing foul shots, and doing all the dumb stuff that teams tend to do when they're on the verge of losing a game they shouldn't.
Then all of a sudden, with everything getting just a little too close for comfort at 89-87, here come the Suns on the break, with Goran Dragic driving, and finding Channing Frye, who NAILED a three with a hand in his face. Niiiiiice. After an Andrew Bynum basket, the Suns came back down, passed the ball around the perimeter, and eventually found Leandro Barbosa who put up a three.....(And to loosely quote Emeril Lagasse)...BAM!! Then one possession later, Dragic moves the ball, finds Dudley for another three ball....BAM!!!! 98-89 Suns. Timeout L.A. Phil Jackson might as well have waved Adam Morrison over his head, because the game was over.
During the whole thing, the biggest surprise wasn't anything the Suns were doing, but how I, Aaron Torres, casual NBA fan was acting. When Dudley's three went in, there I was, jumping up and pumping my fist, like Tiger Woods on the 18th hole at Augusta. All I needed was a red polo and Nike hat.
Believe me when I say that I never get that excited watching sports anymore, it's just not in my personality or in my nature as a fan. Apparently I even let out a loud yell after Dudley's three and L.A.'s timeout, since my dog woke up out of a cold sleep and came downstairs to check on me. That alone is no small feat, considering my dog is 13-years-old, practically deaf, and never walks up or down the stairs unless there's a treat for him involved.
Now what's my point in all this? When Los Suns are rocking and rolling, they're about as fun to watch as anyone or any team in sports. Go ahead and try to stay neutral, it's impossible. You can't help yourself. You turn into me, the most casual NBA fan in the world, all of a sudden rooting for Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley like we shared an apartment together in college or something.
When the game finally did end and I made my way up to bed, I found myself all smiles, a little tired and a little winded, but my heart was racing like I'd just drank a gallon jug of Red Bull.
And that's when I realized, for a guy who spends in front of his TV watching sports for a living, I can't remember the last time I had more fun doing so.
3. Phoenix's Bench Is Sooooooo Much Better Than L.A.'s: Now we all knew the Suns had a better bench coming into the series, I don't think I'm breaking any new ground by saying that. But in Game 4 the gap between the two all of a sudden became wider than Michael Strahan's front two teeth. Seriously.
Phoenix's bench scored a staggering 54 points (With three players scoring double figures), compared to the Lakers' who only scored 20. And even that number is a little skewed, considering that Lamar Odom scored 15 of them.
Right now, the benches are the biggest difference in this series, and the biggest reason why the Suns can hang tight and not miss a beat when their starters come out.
Tuesday was when it all came together. Looking at the stats you wouldn't know it, but Dragic absolutely played his best game of this series, controlling tempo, and dishing out eight assists to go with eight points. Leandro Barbosa, Louis Almundson and Channing Frye had their best games too. And Jared Dudley was, well, Jared Dudley. He had another big game, after being arguably Phoenix's best player in Game 2.
More importantly, while that lineup kept Phoenix in the game, L.A. was forced to play their starters during practically the entire stretch. Sure the Lakers can trot out D.J. Mbenga and Josh Powell when they're up 20, but they aren't doing that when it's a one possession ballgame. Meanwhile, while Steve Nash (30 minutes played) and Amare Stoudemire (31 minutes) are resting up, there's Kobe out there chugging along for 45 minutes. Think his legs might be a little tired if this series goes seven games?
I thought the one thing that was most telling though, was after the game, when TNT elected to interview all five Phoenix bench players, rather than Nash or Stoudemire. Each took a question, smiled, and gave an answer, not used to have the cameras in their face.
Question: Would that ever happen in a million years with the Lakers?
4. There Should Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever....Ever Be An Excuse For Los Angeles To Get Outrebounded: Which they were in Game 4, by 15 rebounds total. Sorry boys, but there's never an explanation for that.
Watching Andrew Bynum alone reminds me of a recess pick-up game between 4th graders, when everyone on the court is 4'11 except for that one kid with the wispy mustache who is 5'9. That kid should be getting every rebound, just like the Lakers- who start the 7'1 Bynum, the 7'0 Gasol and bring the 6'10 Odom off the bench- should be in this series.
What's most concerning if you're an L.A. fan is this: A lot of Phoenix's boards came on Tuesday night simply because the Lakers weren't hustling. We saw the Suns tip loose balls out to teammates, dive on the floor to force jump balls, and there was even that one play (I believe in the second quarter), when Dragic literally ripped the ball out of Kobe's hands after he'd secured a rebound.
There are a lot of acceptable reasons why Los Angeles lost this game: The zone defense has them confused, they can't hit the broad side of a barn with their jump shots, whatever.
But there's never an excuse for simply getting outhustled.
5. Kobe Bryant Doesn't Get Enough Credit For The Versatility In His Offensive Game: Look, I don't like Kobe anymore than Jesse James likes going home to his wife and kids on a Friday night. But I've got to give credit where it's due. Because with Kobe, it's not just that he gets his points (Averaging 28.9 points in the playoffs, and 33.8 per game in this series), but it's how he gets them.
Kobe ultimately will go down as one of the 2-3 greatest pure scorers ever, but what always amazes me is how much he is willing to adjust his offensive game. Not only from season to season, but game to game, and even quarter to quarter.
Take this series for example.
In Game 1, with the Suns (stupidly) attempting to play him man-to-man, Kobe picked Phoenix apart. He finished the game with 40 points, and while he took 23 shots from the field, also aggressively attacked the basket, and got to the foul line 12 times. He made 11 of them.
In Game 2, Alvin Gentry and Co. got the bright idea, "Hey, let's not let Kobe beat us," which I'm thinking they probably should have tried to execute a bit better in Game 1. Anyway, they ran two guys at him every time he touched the ball, and Kobe finished with a ho-hum 21 points (At least for him), but also set a personal playoff record with 13 assists. Well then.
In Game 3, Phoenix threw that funky zone at he and the Lakers, and again, they all responded like a sewage treatment worker in his first day on the job (Wow, what a weird analogy. Sorry for that one). As a team, the Lakers finished 9 for 32 from beyond the arc, and Kobe just 2 for 8.
Again though, it's about adjustments, not just over time, but game to game.
Kobe knew the zone was coming in Game 4 and was prepared. He finished with a career playoff high six three's, even if it was in a losing effort.
Taking this conversation in a completely (and maybe unneccessary direction), that to me is the biggest difference between he and LeBron right now. LeBron is capable of hitting open jumpers, but really only seems to do so when the rest of his offensive game is clicking. When push comes to shove, he still has that "bull in a china shop mentality," and too often tries to force his way to the rim, even if his angles and lanes aren't there. LeBron's still 25-years-old, and I think he'll figure it all out eventually. At least I hope he will.
Kobe on the other hand is more like a seasoned NFL quarterback picking apart an overmatched defense. "Hmm, well if they're not giving me this, I guess I'll just have to take that. Ok, so I can't go here, but I can get there any time I want." Which is why Kobe seems to get 30 points any time he damn well feels like it.
I really don't want to go traveling down the slippery LeBron slope right now, but all I'm going to say is this: Regardless of what regular season awards he's won, Kobe is still the better player when it counts. Maybe not purely statistically alone, but from a combination of raw numbers and results on the scoreboard.
(And yes, it absolutely, positively pained me to say that. I think I'm going to go have a lunch time cocktail...or four, to try and forget)
6. I'm Not Breaking Any New Ground Here, But... Amare Stoudemire Has Been A Completely Different Player These Last Two Games: Maybe it's being back on his home court. Maybe it's Nash's improved play. Or maybe Pau Gasol made fun of his goggles in a broken English accent, I'm really not sure. But whatever the reason, Amare was a completely changed man these last two games.
In Game's 1 and 2, I wouldn't say Stoudemire was passive, but I wouldn't say he was aggressive either. I suppose, maybe we should just say he was passive agressive. He averaged over 20 points in those games, but grabbed just nine rebounds combined. Not quite what you're looking for from an All-Star power forward.
Well, in these last two games, we've seen the real Amare. He's made quick, decisive moves, attacked the rim, and literally left Gasol in a pile of dust, and lunging at him to commit a foul. Amare scored 42 points in Game 3, and had 21 in Game 4, although he played just 31 minutes.
Either way, we'll see what happens as this series heads back to L.A. on Thursday.
The Suns can win there, and believe it or not, can win this series.
Who would have thought that a week ago?
Also for his thoughts on all things sports, be sure to follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres and Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports)