In sizing up the NBA Western Conference finalists, the prevailing perception is that if it’s a pure talent contest, advantage Lakers.
If it comes down to the biggest dog in the fight, L.A. wins going away.
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And then there’s the perception that no one talks about because it’s so obvious that it goes without saying.
In the battle of the benches, the Lakers have the Zen Master Phil Jackson, possessor of 10 world championship rings.
The Suns counter with Alvin Gentry, whose career coaching record entering the playoffs was still 18 games below .500.
The perceptions may be unchanged, even after Phoenix evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2 with Tuesday night’s 115-106 victory, and the Suns are just fine with that. Just don’t expect them to concede.
That goes for the coaching mis-matchup, where Gentry’s steady, confident approach has been perfect for his team, and where his switch to a predominately zone defense has befuddled the Zen Master and his followers.
Gentry made the switch after the Suns were torched for 128 and 124 points and burned by 58 percent Lakers shooting in the first two games in Los Angeles. In the two games since, the Lakers have scored 109 and 106, and while they’ve still shot 48.3 and 49.5 percent from the field, it’s still a huge difference from 58.
Kobe Bryant scored 38 points on 15-of-22 shooting on Tuesday, but his supporting cast — particularly Paul Gasol and Lamar Odom, were held in check. It was a similar script from Game 3, when Bryant scored 36.
“They slowed us down with the zone again,” Odom said. “We couldn’t get the ball inside. Kobe had a big game. Too bad we couldn’t come along with him.”
The zone remained effective even though the Lakers knew it was coming, even after they pored over the tapes from Game 3. Take that Zen Master.
The Suns looked at those tapes, too.
“The only thing we tried to do is look at the tape as if we were the Lakers,” Gentry said. “And we said, OK, where would you attack us. And we saw some areas where we thought we were real vulnerable.”
One area was the high screen and roll with Bryant. “We thought we would have to get up and make him a driver, not just rise up and shoot the ball,” said Gentry.
Another potential vulnerability was the Lakers’ inside strength and length. “We thought they would try to pound the ball inside a lot more,” Gentry said. “So we were going to have to be inside and then close out the shooters.”
Jackson, Bryant and Gasol insisted that the zone wasn’t the Lakers’ primary problem — it was on the other end of the court, particularly in the second and fourth quarters, when lineups predominately of bench players scored 41 and 30 points for the Suns.
Gentry said he never wavered in his confidence in his reserves, even after some sub-par performances early in the series, and had no qualms about having them on the court with the game, and perhaps the season, hanging in the balance.
As they began hitting shots, crashing the boards, disrupting the Lakers’ offense and the lead grew, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson were leading the cheers.
“Alvin kept looking at the starters, and we were like, leave them out there, don’t let us mess it up,” said Grant Hill.
For all the success the Suns enjoyed under Mike D’Antoni, such an occurrence would never have happened in his system that rendered the bench an afterthought.
This is perhaps Gentry’s most profound contribution to the Suns’ success.
“I was a bad player, I was one of those bench guys,” he explained. “You’re going to need those guys, you’ve got to keep them involved, put them in a position where they have ownership in the game. That’s part of our chemistry. You saw it out there tonight. Steve and Amar’e and J-Rich were the biggest cheerleaders out there.”
The end product, the Suns say, is unique in the high-stakes, me-first world of the NBA.
“Everyone enjoyed the game tonight,” Nash said. “We have a special group of guys who play well together, really supporting each other, rooting for each other, happy for each other. And that’s why I think we’ve had as much success as we’ve had.”
General manager Steve Kerr, who played on five championship teams himself, said the Suns’ chemistry is “the best I’ve ever seen.
“It just doesn’t happen in the NBA,” Kerr said. “Alvin deserves a ton of credit. You don’t get that kind of camaraderie, that kind of chemistry, unless your bench plays. You’ve got to keep those guys involved.”
Chemistry vs. Zen-istry. On this matchup at least, score one for the Suns.