The so called experts callously predicted that the Los Angeles Lakers would dispose of the Phoenix Suns as quickly as teenagers go through a week’s worth of groceries. After games 1 & 2 and coupled with the Boston Massacre of Magic, these same experts were tripping over themselves in providing preemptive analysis of a Lakers vs. Celtics Finals. Finishing the Suns in four or five games was a foregone conclusion and the only question was where in Boston would the Lakers starters get decent Carne Asada Burrito during their rematch with the Celts. Incredibly (to them, anyways...) the Suns have tied the Western Conference Finals, in large part due to throwing down the self-described “Girlie-Zone” against the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Kobe Bryant & Pau Gasol frolicking their way up and down the court and Phil Jackson working the refs like a pimp on the sideline, a sensible basketball aficionado (Hey, I learned a new word…) would realize that it should work about as long as it takes Kobe to start pouting after a foul call. For some reason, it has befuddled the Laker aristocracy for the better part of 5 quarters. Of course, this type of mystery calls for Agatha Christie to conjure some sort of rationale explanation. Since she’s not around, I‘ll have to do. WARNING! WARNING! I am in no-ways a basketball expert…! Hell, sometimes figuring out defensive three seconds call makes my head hurt! However, I do believe that there are a few reasons why a gimmick defense like a 2-3 zone would work against a legitimate NBA Championship contender. Feel free to skewer me as totally ignorant of facts and devoid of all understanding….I enjoy humiliation…
Before I tell you what I think, let me give you a little background. While the zone was outlawed for many years because it was believed to limit the NBA’s ability to showcase individual talent and sell Nike hightops, the fact remains, that the NBA brought it back as part of an initiative to open up the game (84-79 barnburner, anyone..?) and make it simpler for referees. Even though zones are perfectly legal in the NBA nowadays, it is rarely used. Why you may ask? Probably because NBA level shooters will usually shoot a zone into oblivion, and by association, the coach that tries to implement it. This is exacerbated in playoff time, as you theoretically see some of the best NBA players and correspondingly, some of the best NBA shooters Buss’s money can buy. These levels of teams should, by default have the type of execution and player movement necessary to counteract any gimmick defense.
The case for why it is working…Not entirely sure, but pulled some stuff out the old rectal database that maybe explains it:
1. The Suns game flow causes the Lakers to be impatient on Offense. With the Suns flying up and down the court, I believe it lulls an opponent into wanting to match that tempo. It takes discipline to play a slow down game, especially when you are used to a flowing offense like the triangle that the Lakers employ. Hence this creates a problem because the solution for breaking the zone requires patience. While the Lakers talked it up that they were going to do just that for Game 4, they didn’t always accomplish this. Many times the Lakers settled for outside jump shots instead of waiting for Gasol, Bynum or Odom to break free in the post.
2. The Lakers guards other than Kobe – While Derek Fisher is a nice veteran presence and has a lot of accolades, there are a few holes to his game (his molasses like defense, notwithstanding...). Considering that Derek has been a 10000% upgrade at the position over Smush Parker, he is not a true point guard in the most literal sense. Watching the Lakers offense closely and you will see Kobe with the ball in his hands a lot…a whole lot…a whole hell of a lot, in fact. A classic, pass-first point ala Stevie Nash can direct the offense to find weaknesses against a zone. Too often, Derek Fisher and his band of unserviceable backups (Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown) couldn’t discern those weaknesses and settled instead for outside jump shots. This in turn necessitated that their teammates become perimeter players instead of post players.
3. For the Suns, the zone puts the onus squarely on team defense and a mindset of playing your position. Everyone has to do their part, in other words it engages everyone defensively. This engagement created a more attentive unit overall that is quicker in responding to the ball. This became even more evident when the bench unit came on., At times it seem like the Lakers couldn’t get an entry pass without a Sun stepping in the lane or deflecting it. While Kobe had a nice overall game, going for 38 point, 10 assists and 7 rebounds, he looked frustrated against the zone because he wasn’t getting his slashes and favorable 15 foot jump shots. Additionally, Pau Gasol struggled because he wasn’t able to get easy entry passes while positioned in the paint. The faces he made confirmed this fact....
I am sure that there are a host of other reasons why this thing worked so well. Voodoo, Alchemy, or luck may have something to do with it as well. Nevertheless, the Suns zone has made this a whole new ball game. If we can keep this thing working, we’ll be on our way. Comments, anyone…?