Western Conference Finals Recap - Game 4
(3) Phoenix 115, (1) L.A. Lakers 106 - Series tied, 2-2
Kobe Bryant played as well as he's ever played the game of basketball. The best player in the world performed at his best.
It didn't matter.
In one of the more surprising turnarounds of this year's playoffs, the Phoenix Suns - completely outclassed and woefully powerless against the early onslaught of the Los Angeles Lakers - responded to a 2-0 series deficit by squaring the best-of-seven battle after the first four throwdowns. What initially had "sweep" written all over it, and still felt like a pedestrian five-game wipeout early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's tilt, is now an even-steven best-of-three fight to the finish line.
The reigning world champions have the best basketball player on the planet, but they're just not getting help from enough sources. Basketball is still a team game, and over the past three days in Phoenix, the Suns have gotten numerous meaningful contributions from the whole of their rotation. The Lakers are not quite "LeBron James and the four ghosts," a one-person outfit with no team concept. It's more that the Suns have become a 10-deep force which doesn't suffer when its bench takes the floor. This was manifested in a number of ways on a raucous night at the U.S. Airways Center.
One foremost aspect of the Suns' resurgence has been their ability to play with more vigor and authoritativeness near the rim. Believe it or not, the one category which most heavily favored the Lakers in this series - rebounding - heavily favored Phoenix on Tuesday. The Suns didn't just play even on the boards; they hammered the Lake Show by a 51-36 count on the glass, with an 18-13 edge on the offensive backboard. Three members of the Phoenix bench - Channing Frye, Louis Amundson, and Jared Dudley - pulled down at least six boards. Of the 10 Suns who played in Game 4, nine of them grabbed at least four rebounds. The Lakers did not and could not match that level of commitment and discipline.
Because of the rebounding disparity, it's not surprising that the Suns once again won another battle which usually proves to be decisive at this level of playoff competition: free throw margin. On Sunday in Game 3, Phoenix posted 21 more makes than the Lakers did (37-16), and on Tuesday, it was no different in the Valley of the Suns. Coach Alvin Gentry's feisty underdogs earned 19 more attempts (32-13) and made 15 more (22-7). That's a huge difference maker which is a reflection of the Lakers' lack of energy at the defensive end of the floor.
These statistics reveal why the Lakers lost by nine for the second straight outing despite two world-class performances from Kobe. In Game 3, the scoreline for the Black Mamba read 36 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds. In Game 4, the stat sheet was oh-so-similar for No. 24, who blistered the Suns' defense for 38, 10 and 7. It has to be very irritating to Laker head coach Phil Jackson that his team wasted two of its superstar's finest exhibitions. Then again, it's not about the individual, but the collective, and on a night when Pau Gasol (15 points, only 6 of 14 field goals, only 5 rebounds) looked genuinely flustered and Lamar Odom (6 of 13 shooting, 10 rebounds) didn't really mix it up in the paint with enough consistency, the Lakers still lacked the physicality which marked their overwhelming romps in Games 1 and 2.
Phoenix has changed the equation in this series, and as the scene shifts to L.A. for Game 5 on Thursday, the defending champs need to regain the formula that brought them so much success. Gasol and Odom need to play over the top and pound Phoenix on the boards. Yes, the Suns' zone defense - an inspired move by Gentry - unsettled the Lakers in the state of Arizona, but when the teams reunite in California, the champs' intensity and aggressiveness must return to the forefront.
We're going at least six. Surprise! The next urgent question is: Can the Suns bottle up what they've just done and uncork it on the road?
By: Matt Zemek
Pro Basketball Fans Guest Writer
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