Crucifido's Corner: Sun-Lakers, Resiliency in the Desert

Clublakers.comAnalyst IFebruary 21, 2008

It was one of the biggest stages surrounding a regular season game in a good long time. As the tip grew closer in Phoenix, the fans became more anxious. When the ball was finally thrown, the Lakers stepped on the gas and didn’t look back until the final buzzer.

There were plenty of ups and downs as Phoenix fought back from a 13 point deficit, took a late lead, and had momentum working for them throughout the second half. Despite all of that, the Lakers stood tough. Their will to win wasn’t broken, and for the first time in a handful of years the Lakers looked like true contenders.

My main goal for the Lakers in first half was to just stay within four or five points. A lead would’ve been great to have, but I figured if the Lakers could keep close, they’d give themselves a chance to pull it out in the end.

Luckily for me, them, and the rest of the Laker faithful, the Lakers had bigger goals in mind. From the first run they had about midway in the first quarter it was apparent that intensity was alive and well within every player on the floor and on the bench.

Out of everyone, there was Kobe leading the way. I hope that now we can put to rest the great pinky debate and realize that a simple injury won’t hold Kobe back right now.

I loved seeing Kobe waiting in the wings as the game got itself up to a boil. He did a perfect job of letting the rest of the team get them into the game mentally. It didn’t take much because the Lakers looked focused from the outset, but by Kobe taking a backseat to the team’s welfare, he let everyone rev their game up to speed. That speed kept up the entire game.

Kobe’s work on the defensive end was easy to miss, but it was powerful tonight. Raja Bell, normally good for 10 to 21 points against the Lakers, was held to zero. His switching from top to bottom to help out with Shaq in the paint was on the money.

It was a defensive performance that in a 130-124 game where there was little defense to speak of overall, could easily be unseen. But with Kobe holding one of the key elements the Suns look to spread the floor was big.

Along those lines, I liked that the Lakers for most purposes let Amare do what he had to do. Certainly Shaq eased up a lot of room for Amare to operate more freely, but the Lakers did well in holding down the peripheral players. They didn’t let guys like Bell, Diaw, Strawberry, or even Shaq go off for big games.

It’s so tough to spout off about defense in a scoring-fest like this; there were things like containing Phoenix’s bench and what I mentioned above that kept the Lakers mentally focused throughout.

A big key in beating the Suns is to make them dig into their thin bench for help and the Lakers did that well. The Lakers bench was looking a bit intimidated, but for the most part they did really well keeping the Suns from going on a game changing run.

When the Suns did go on a run (at a couple points in this game) the Lakers bounced back consistently. They showed a focus and dedication to their game plan that veteran teams show. Though the Lakers are still vastly young, tonight they showed that their confidence in Phil’s system, in each other, and in each of their own games is growing by leaps and bounds right now.

Along with Kobe there was inimitable Lamar Odom. Again, now that the Lakers don’t rely on him to score more, he does. When the Lakers don’t ask him to rebound more, he does that too. There’s been a lot of talk of trading Lamar right now (and in the summer the Lakers MAY very well shop him, maybe) but after games like this one and games like he’s played since the arrival of Pau, it’s hard to see dealing Lamar for someone who will do more.

I loved the aggressiveness from Lamar in the beginning. We haven’t seen him go after boards with that much tenacity even during this recent tear he’s been on. The Suns had real trouble keeping track of Lamar. You could see Phoenix’s focus turning to Gasol and Kobe in the paint, but often Lamar found himself with a free run to the back end of a board on both ends.

There were some missed lay-ups in heavy traffic that Lamar should still be finishing with strength, but that was minimal. Odom did a great job in patrolling the mid post too. When the attention of the Laker defense sunk low, Lamar popped out on either side of the hoop to get early board position.

When the Suns moved Lamar out of the paint his recovery back into strong position was without hesitation. It was one of Lamar’s best performances of the year, if not as a Laker.

So you have Kobe throwing down another MVP game, Lamar doing well playing watchdog in the mid-post, and Gasol playing as strong as he could down low. It was a tall order for Gasol to try and keep stable against a big body like Shaq, but once he got the hang of where to get his feet set (after a bit of a disjointed first quarter), Gasol did as well as an undersized (girth wise) five could do.

He found a good balance of energy from defense to offense too. He did get beat down low, but often he flipped back around and made Shaq play into his strength: mobility.

I would’ve liked to have seen Gasol step outside a touch more to get Shaq out of the paint, but what he lacked for in that he more than made up for in footwork. Pau’s dives down the lane and timing on cuts were spot on. His finishing with bigs running at him was amazing to watch.

Having a seven-footer run breaks like he did and also finishing with that kind of conviction is something the Lakers can just thrive with.

As many times as the Lakers did well running dives with Gasol, they all need to begin to look for him more often. There were some drives by Sasha, Kobe, and Lamar that left Gasol with space on the side of the key. If the Lakers can begin to keep their peripheral vision open to Gasol filling those spots, the Lakers can exploit Pau’s talents even more.

But seriously, Pau was just brilliant in his first big time game as a Laker. It was the kind of game from Pau that leaves you wondering just how much more he may be able to add to an already strengthening Laker team.

Derek Fisher played Nash the way you need to play him: physical. (Even though Nash had 20+ points.) Nash still had plenty of easy runs (mainly around picks by Shaq), but Derek did well in keeping within arm’s reach of him. Playing quick point guards is definitely Derek’s big hitch on D, but tonight he did about as well as he could do against a point with the talent of Nash.

One game that might not have been seen so well was Ronny Turiaf’s. He played Shaq really well. He kept right up in his face, keeping his arms wide and pushing up into Shaq as much as he could without getting a foul. He did well in literally bouncing off of Shaq in the mid post to drop down under the bucket in help situations.

Jordan Farmar is obviously getting his feet back under him. He again had great timing on his shot. He made solid decisions on when to shoot, when to drive, and when to play the perimeter offensively.

His defensive rotation on Barbosa was right where it needed to be. Farmar played a big part in keeping Barbosa off of his normal slashing game that usually kills the Lakers. Farmar also did well in abusing the weakness of the Suns’ defense in back door passes. With Gasol moving as fluidly as he was, Jordan was equally aware of where to put the pass for an easy lay-in for Pau.

Radmanovic, though quiet offensively, did well in the first half defensively. His hands were still active from the last couple of games and he made a decent contribution on the perimeter D. The Lakers did well watching the Suns drive and kick to the corners for threes and Radmanovic was right in step in the first half by keeping good split space between the paint and his man on the outside.

Sasha played well again. What he did particularly well tonight was movement off the ball. There were a couple times when the Lakers got stagnant on the offensive end, but when Sasha came in the game his motion from the perimeter down to the corners kicked the rest of the Laker off-ball players into gear. When you couple that with really good shot decisions, Sasha threw down yet another good game.

WTF Of The Game: What was up with the eight to 10 seconds of the clock stopping in the third quarter? It was weird watching the refs look up at the clock and do nothing to stop the game. It’s comforting to know the refs are really paying attention to their jobs.

There are just a couple things to look out for.

All the Laker point guards have to be aware of big picks up top. If they play the Suns again, or when they play the Spurs, they’re getting caught up top too much.

The Lakers were still soft on boxing out the weak side rebounders. When there’s big guys like Phoenix has now and/or activity on the low block from jumpers, the Lakers have got to always be aware of the off man coming around the back end.

Movement off the ball kind of fell flat for a bit. When it did the Suns went on a run. The Lakers have to use their athleticism and activity off the ball (especially with defenses having to focus on Kobe and Gasol) to the utmost. When the Lakers keep getting to spots and don’t watch, they click.

Maybe more nitpicking from me, but the late quarter (and in particular late first half) buzzer beaters can be a dangerous game to flirt with. Often those shots change momentum.

The Lakers have kind of gotten sluggish in the waning seconds of quarters. They’ve got to prevent late shots from not only going in, but even getting off in the first place.

But really, this game was huge. It was a big win in more ways than one. What’s important to remember though is that it was just one regular season game. There can’t be a letdown when the Lakers get into this run of weaker teams.

A second of a back to back in this big of a game atmosphere is tough to pull off, but the Lakers showed the focus of a team that, like Kobe said, doesn’t think they can win, but knows they can.


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