The Orlando Magic heard it. The Phoenix Suns heard it too — all the talk of a Lakers/Celtics showdown before the Conference Finals even began. The round before the “real round” was a mere formality, a required prerequisite before a team could advance. In the first two games of these series, a Lakers/Celtics Finals appeared inevitable with the way the recent defending champions thumped their then (considered) inferior opponents, but now four games in the Conference Finals and it’s obvious that everyone counted their Finals appearances before they were hatched.
Kobe Bryant sat on the bench during a timeout in the fourth quarter, staring blankly straight ahead, then at the ground, wondering how the small lead he created had suddenly turned into another 9-point deficit. Was it because the Suns’ bench finally lived up to their reputation? Was it difficulty with attacking the Suns’ zone and getting their offense going?
“We lost a sense of urgency defensively. Our focus turned to how to attack the zone instead of focus on the other side of the court,” Kobe Bryant said. “We didn’t lose the game because [we didn’t score enough]. We lost because our defense sucked.”
It really did. The Lakers were ranked among the league leaders in defending the three-point shot during the regular season, but tonight mostly every shot that the Suns attempted from downtown was wide open, with nary a purple uniform within two feet of the shooter.
Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers’ 2nd greatest advantage other than Kobe Bryant, rarely contested nor attempted to alter the Suns’ shots. Their defense was uncertain more than it was deliberate. It was reaction more than it was anticipation and despite some (always) questionable calls and non-calls, the free throw disparity, again, favored Phoenix 32-13.
Channing Frye, who has been a non-factor in this series, showed that shooting slumps are just that — slumps. He may have started 1-20 from the field before this game, but tonight his 4-8 from three was exactly the spark the Suns needed to regain their much-heralded edge in this series — their reserves. The Suns’ bench scored 54 points, collected 23 rebounds, handed out 13 assists and wore energy and pride on their jerseys like badges of honor, and they sure deserved to show them off.
The only Laker who had the type of game that the Suns’ bench had was Kobe Bryant. Without a single field goal in the first quarter, Bryant came into the second period and hit shot after shot after shot… after shot. He had 15 points in the second quarter alone, en route to a monster 38 point evening. Until the very last few minutes, even seconds, of the game, Bryant refused to stopped trying, helping to cut the lead to a manageable deficit time again, only to be defeated repeatedly by an energized and more confident Suns team.
It would be easy to pin this loss on a number of factors: lack of bench production, lack of rebounds, lack of defense, and a lack of common sensibility to know the difference between what works and what doesn’t.
In the end, it came down to a lack of the most important factors of victory: energy and execution.
The stoic expression on Bryant’s face from the post-game podium was resolute.
“Everybody wants to talk about the offensive side of the ball and that as nothing to do with [winning championships],” Bryant said. “Gotta defend.” Hopefully on Thursday, the Lakers will do just that.
Pre-Game Thoughts: If Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest can get going tonight, the Lakers will come home 3-1
Half-time Thoughts: The Lakers look clumsy, unfocused and frazzled, as if they’ve never played this team before. The Suns are shooting well, especially since the Lakers’ defense (or lack thereof) is allowing it.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Every Laker not named Kobe Bryant — 38 points on 15-22 shooting, 6-9 from downtown, plus 10 assists and 7 rebounds. For a second game in a row, Bryant has had spectacular performance shadowed by his team’s failure to help. What a _damn_ shame.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Kobe Bryant — He scored, he made plays, he played defense. He did everything he could to win except instill some fight in his teammates. There are just some things that shouldn’t be his responsibility.