The Phoenix Suns’ 118-109 drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers was all about something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
The “old” part of this scenario was the Suns’ perfect execution of what they’d been doing all season long: Steve Nash masterfully orchestrating the offense, Amare Stoudemire attacking the basket and Jason Richardson making shots.
The “something new” was the emergence of Robin Lopez as a jump-shooting, hard-driving, aggressive presence in the middle.
The 2-3 zone that turned and then won the game for Phoenix was “borrowed” from the playbooks of virtually every high school team in the country.
The zone effectively prevented the taller Lakers front line from gaining possession of the prime real estate in the low post. It closed most of the driving lanes that usually put the Suns’ bigs in foul trouble and got the Lakers to the free-throw line.
Also, by squeezing the cutting lanes, the zone jammed the Lakers' spacing and distorted their normal passing angles while denying L.A. the use of the various screens and curls that are such a large part of their triangle offense.
Kobe Bryant’s opportunities to play isolation basketball were limited, and he was also prevented from spinning and whirling his way to the rim. The zone allowed the Suns to easily double-team the ball in all four corners of the attack area.
The Lakers were forced into thinking they absolutely had to win the game from the perimeter.
The zone also worked to maximize the Suns’ speed and quickness while minimizing the Lakers’ size and length. Because full-time zones are so rarely employed in the NBA, the Lakers offense became hesitant. They were forced to think instead of react and never developed any semblance of a consistent offensive rhythm.
Having to diligently work the ball and choreograph their movements in patterns that were beyond the limits of their respective comfort areas, several of the Lakers became impatient and began casting up quick three-pointers — 32 in all.
The Lakers’ failure to solve the zone got them frustrated and confused and negatively affected every aspect of their game — particularly their defense. Credit Alvin Gentry’s willingness (born of desperation) to gamble on the zone for limiting the defending champs to a mere 109 points after they’d averaged a colossal 126 during the first two games.
Here’s how to beat a 2-3 zone:
The first plan of attack is to furiously push the ball over the timeline with the aim of creating good looks before the zone has a chance to get set. This is something that the Lakers really didn’t look to accomplish. Instead, they were overly cautious in running situations and were too eager to pull the ball out and organize their offense.
Get the ball into a good-passing big man (like Pau Gasol) at, or near, the middle of the stripe. The idea is to put pressure on a specific interior defender to guard either the ball or the baseline. If the zoner under attack moves up and pressures the ball, a wingman can then take advantage of the vacated space by cutting behind the zone. Whatever success the Lakers did have against the 2-3 alignment usually resulted from this strategy.
Delivering the ball to Kobe at an elbow-extended likewise compels the baseline zoners to commit themselves one way or the other.
The gaps between the two top-most defenders, or between one top defender and the strong-side wing defender, are usually large enough for someone like Kobe to penetrate if the ball is quickly reversed to him.
Moreover, screens can be set on the guards that, if properly executed, can create both shooting and penetrating lanes. The penetrations will likely be limited, but can still facilitate drive-and-kick opportunities.
Overloading one side of the court and then quickly reversing the ball can also generate open looks, simply because the ball can be passed from point A to Point B faster than a defender can travel the same distance.
The easy way to overcome zones is to routinely knock down outside jumpers. Even so, the ball must be rapidly moved from east-to-west as well as from north-to-south to open the best possible shots.
The onus is now on the Lakers coaching staff to make the proper adjustments. Knowing that Phil Jackson & Co. will certainly tweak their zone offense, the Suns coaching staff must stay ahead of L.A.’s adjustments by making its own. Perhaps by occasionally shifting into another borrowed alignment — the good, old 2-1-2 zone.
Finally, because their on-court intelligence and resourcefulness were found wanting, the Lakers most definitely have the blues.