Well, here we are, the Suns just ran the Lakers out of Phoenix, tying up the series at two games a piece, and bewildering the supposedly tough Lakers with a smothering zone defense.
Experts have ridiculed the zone, called it "girly," and predicted the smarter, stronger Lakers would find ways to expose the trial defense, and would still be able to match Phoenix score-for-score.
Well, they were all half right.
The Lakers aren't having any trouble scoring. They're just having a lot of trouble stopping the Phoenix Suns.
It's as simple as this:
In the first two games in L.A., the Lakers were destroying the Suns, facing pathetic man defense, and exploiting one-on-one matchups routinely.
This allowed the Lakers to pound the ball inside, get easy lay-ups, and penetrate at will. This meant Kobe Bryant could open up his three-dimensional game, as he got others involved, attacked the basket, and played solid defense.
But the Suns zone is messing with the Lakers' swagger. It's making their players fall in love with the jumper, and more importantly, the three-point shot.
It's become strikingly clear that the Lakers can compete with the Suns at their game, but with this new defense that forces L.A. to completely play Phoenix's game, the Lakers just don't matchup.
The Lakers are not a good three-point shooting team, and outside of Kobe Bryant, they don't have a go-to scorer who can operate from the outside, create, and finish by himself.
Pau Gasol is virtually useless against this zone. Ron Artest, who has already been invisible on defense, is forced to shoot jumpers (which have somehow been falling), and take ill-advised trips into the paint with dribble penetration.
This zone defense has also exposed the Lakers main weakness to the max: making it disgustingly evident that the Lakers don't have the metal at point guard to keep up with Steven Nash and Goran Dragic.
Derek Fisher has already struggled covering Nash and Dragic, and Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown have not had much better success.
On the offensive side of the ball, all of these Lakers' point guards have the ability to shoot the three, but not at the rate the Suns guards can, and they also don't have the dribble penetration skills and/or vision to create and exploit the zone defense.
It's really as easy as that. The Lakers strength (outside of Kobe Bryant) is their post game, which has been hindered by Andrew Bynum's knee injury, and now has been held in check by Phoenix's zone.
This forces the Lakers to rely on penetration and/or outside shooting, which have clearly been exposed as major weaknesses.
How are these reigning champs supposed to beat the Suns at a high-paced game, when none of their point guards can do what the Suns' back-up point guard can do?
When Steve Nash is sitting on the sidelines in the fourth quarter until the three-minute marker, you know you've got a problem.
And the worst part for L.A. is the fact that, even if they do figure out the zone and make things happen on offense, they still have to worry about the hot-shooting of the Suns.
Channing Frye is back to hitting shots. Goran Dragic is doing things that are flat-out amazing people. Jason Richardson is living up to his x-factor role. And Amare Stoudemire and Robin Lopez are playing spirited defense in their new scheme.
Do we really have to dive into the hustle/team play aspect that guys like Louis Amundson, Leandro Barbosa, and Jared Dudley bring to the table?
The Suns, for lack of a better term, are on fire right now. They're executing on an extremely high level on offense, figuring out ways to score and move the ball, and applying enough pressure on defense to make the Lakers take bad shots and turn the ball over.
In all reality, they just abused the Lakers in the last two games on the same level that the Lakers closed-out and abused the Suns in the first two games.
The real question is, which team shows up? If it's the team that just shocked the world in the last two games, Phoenix could be inching closer to an unlikely upset.
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