Game Notes: Suns at Lakers
Suns never stood a chance.
by Graham Flashner and Sean Ceglinsky
Andrew Bynum is back for the Lakers. And “Flashinsky” is back for SLAMonline.
We were deeply moved by your Facebook updates. We were gratified by your tweets. We appreciated it when you stopped us on the street, even though you didn’t know what in the world we looked like. The cries for a “Flashinsky” sequel could not be ignored after our debut at the Lakers season-opener.
And so, there we were — Sean Ceglinsky in plain type, Graham Flashner in italics — sitting courtside at Staples Center on Thursday night to bring you our special brand of coverage from the Suns and Lakers early season showdown.
It was supposed to have been a statement game for the Suns. A chance for Phoenix to show the rest of the NBA, or at least the Western Conference, that they could hang with the big fellas.
So much for the “showdown.” The only statement the Suns made was, we will not let Lakers fans go home with tacos. A driving shot by Louis Amundson put the Suns over the century mark, sent fans home taco-less, and preserved the team’s streak of scoring 100 points in every game they’ve played. Unfortunately for them, the game was already long out of reach, and the Suns’ aspirations to best in the West were dead, at least for now.
A statement was made, rest assured. Bynum took care of that. The big man made his return from an elbow injury and didn’t miss a beat in the 121-102 victory, scoring 26 points to go along with 15 rebounds and 3 blocks in 36 minutes of action.
*** An elevator ride down to the pressroom with Lakers commentators Stu Lantz and Joel Meyers proves interesting. Both acknowledge the importance of this game. TNT is covering all the action for the entire nation to see for a reason.
*** It’s good to see the welcome revival of the run-and-gun Suns, now that the Big Lane Clogger has departed to Cleveland. Even if the Suns are really getting shots off in 15 seconds or less, as opposed to seven, that’s still a vast improvement over a year ago, when they suffered a complete identity crisis under coach Terry Porter, whose down-tempo, half-court offense eventually cost him his job.
After slashing their way through the East, with impressive victories at Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia, it was time to test their mettle against a team that boasts the one component the Suns don’t have – size.
*** Pau Gasol appears upbeat despite being sidelined for eight games with a troublesome hamstring injury. He’s accessible during warm-ups, standing adjacent to the court, although there’s still no timetable for his return.
*** I catch up with Jason Richardson, who’s been on a tear of late, averaging 28.3 ppg while shooting 62 percent, including an eye-opening 72 percent from downtown. “It’s just a matter of me being more aggressive,” he says. “On this team, I get a lot of open shots. I’m just making the most of my opportunities.”
Richardson admits to a tough adjustment period following his trade to the Suns a year ago. “It was hard to find my place,” he says. “Some nights I was the Number 5 option. But then, we got back to the old style everyone was used to playing. Running and gunning, getting up and down the court, sharing the ball. By us going back to that level, it’s made everybody’s game better.”
The Suns’ helter-skelter style of play doesn’t generally lend itself to stellar defense, which has been their albatross in the playoffs, when defense, like pitching in baseball, tends to win basketball games. But this year, the Suns have stepped up that part of their game as well.
“We know we’re not going to be a lockdown team, holding teams to 80 points a game,” says Richardson. “But we’re playing great team defense right now. It’s about accountability. Everyone’s got a job to do. Having that chemistry where we trust each other, not leaving a teammate hanging.”
*** At his pregame presser, Coach Alvin Gentry echoes Richardson’s sentiments: “We’ve made a concerted effort to simplify things defensively, and hold everyone accountable,” he says.
Gentry is a nice man with the easygoing, laidback style of Doc Rivers. He seems put off by the notion that the Suns and their scorched-earth offense are not built to win a title. “The Lakers played this style,” he says, citing the Showtime Lakers of Magic and Worthy. Note to Alvin: this team ain’t them.
Gentry praises Amar’e Stoudemire for having grown as a teammate, voices concern about the Lakers’ being “the longest team we’ve faced,”, and draws laughter when he talks candidly about having to limit the minutes of the 35 year-old Nash. “He plays 34 minutes a game,” says Gentry. “That means 14 minutes that make me nervous as hell.”
On the Suns’ whiteboard before the game: “Space the ball and attack”! And—“No easy baskets!”
*** Bad omen, on the Suns’ first possession their vaunted offense can barely get a shot off in 24 seconds, let alone seven.
*** Bynum hits the boards early on, grabbing 4 rebounds. He’s rewarded for his efforts too.
*** Lamar Odom dribbles the ball the length of the floor, with Amar’e Stoudemire on his hip the whole time, and lobs a left-handed pass to Bynum, who snatches the ball out of mid-air and finishes the alley-oop with an authoritative dunk to give the Lakers a 12-6 lead at 7:28.
*** Stoudemire responds, taking Bynum to school in the lane with a dazzling series of head fakes that leaves Bynum looking, at least momentarily, like an unschooled rook. Stoudemire is fouled, nails the short jump hook and converts the free throw. It’s his last highlight on the way to a forgettable 2-15 shooting night.
*** Not to be outdone by Bynum, Kobe gets it going, with his newfound game in the post, no less. He backs down Grant Hill, uses a spin move to create space and finishes at the rim with little resistance. With 4:22 remaining, the Lakers are up 20-11.
*** Down 20-11, the Suns are not themselves. The Lakers are outmuscling and outrunning them, and no one appears in sync. As I write that, Channing Frye blasts through the Lakers’ interior D like an express train, ending with an emphatic slam.
*** The only thing Bynum doesn’t do well in the opening 12 minutes is make a bucket just before the buzzer sounds. Let it be known, he takes the shot a bit off-balance and the short jumper is contested by a pair of Suns. Regardless, the Lakers enjoy a 31-24 lead at the end of one.
Gentry had talked pre-game about the difficulty of trying to double Kobe in post, and his fears are realized: Kobe finds a wide-open Odom for a jam. LA up 25-16.
Jason Richardson has drawn the unenviable task of guarding Bryant, and the effort has sapped his offense. He’s throwing up bricks, and no points, in the first twelve minutes. The Lakers, meanwhile, look more like the Suns: alley oops and back door cuts leading to countless open baskets.
*** With most of the starters sitting, the Bench Mob takes over for the Lakers and subsequently struggles. Before you know it, the Suns get back into the game, cutting the deficit to 33-31 at 8:27.
*** There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Lakers defensive lapse. “Luke Walton has got to be one of the worst.” says Sean. He went on a similar rant last time around, and nothing I said could dissuade him back then. I’m about to defend cool hand Luke, but then he tries to dribble-penetrate and tosses up a half-shot, half-pass that slams off the backboard.
*** Jordan Farmar does a good job of saving face for the second unit, handing out a pair of assists to Sasha Vujacic and Bynum. Walton decides to make a contribution. He finds Josh Powell for an easy hoop and proceeds to bury a three-pointer of his own. All of a sudden, the Lakers lead 47-37 with 5:11 left.
*** Wonder what Sean thinks of Luke now…
*** For the record, and I hope no one takes any offense, I’m still not convinced that Bill Walton’s kid is that good.
*** As lethargically as the Suns are playing, the Lakers let them back in the game. Two floaters by Hill are followed by a three from Steve Nash and a reverse layup from Richardson, his first basket of the game, over 20 minutes in. Finally, a three-point bomb by Hill narrows the lead to 51-45 with just 1:33 to go in the half.
*** Ladies and gentlemen, we might have a game on our hands after all.
*** The Suns are right in the thick of it. And then, just as suddenly, they’re not. Stoudemire’s blown dunk begins the demise.
*** Kobe’s spirited play certainly doesn’t help matters.
*** Jared Dudley attempts to keep him in check this time around, but it doesn’t work. Bryant is feeling it and after draining a couple jumpers, he gets loose on a breakaway. With everyone holding their breath for something spectacular, he plays it somewhat safe, throwing it down with both hands and tapping the backboard with his right before landing.
*** I give Kobe a 5.5 on that dunk. Where’s the 360? How about a double-pump reverse?
*** Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Bryant sparks an 8-0 run and the Lakers take a 14-point lead into the locker room.
*** It appears that the Suns road-warrior log – this is their seventh game in the last 10 days – has finally caught up with them. And no one’s more frustrated than J-Rich. On the last play of the half, he hammers Bryant under the basket which leads to a heated exchange. Fittingly, Richardson heaves an airball in desperation to close things out.
*** The Suns shoot 52 times, making 17 in the first half. But the most telling stat is points in the paint: The Lakers have 42 and Phoenix has managed 22.
*** Sean is bewildered: “What, nobody in double-digits for the Suns yet? Where is this high-powered offense you were talking about before the game?’’ he says. Truth be told, the Suns have no answer for the Lakers’ vertical advantage, and it’s killing them on both ends. They can’t get inside shots and nothing is falling from the outside.
*** After a relatively quiet first half, Derek Fisher begins to find his range from the perimeter. He takes an Odom pass, uses a pump fake to send Nash flying bye and then hits a baseline jumper to make it 63-51 at 9:29.
*** A few possessions later, with 6:56 remaining, Fisher knocks down a three-pointer, is fouled by Nash in the act, but fails to complete the four-point play, missing the free-throw. Odom, however, is there for the rebound and layup to extend the lead to 72-55.
*** I could swear the Suns are playing four-on-five. Why is everyLaker so wide open?
*** One of the highlights of the night comes at the 5:37 mark. Odom throws a lob up toward the front of the rim, and out of nowhere, Kobe flies into the frame, grabs the ball and does a sick reverse dunk to bring the crowd to its feet.
*** Now that’s what I’m talking about! That’s a slam. For SLAM. Get it?
*** Speaking of slams, Bynum, who the finished the first half with 16 points and 9 rebounds, picks up where he left off. His dunk, two jumpers and basket inside demoralize the Suns, who end up trailing 92-71 at the end of three.
*** As Chick Hearn would say, “The eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O’s jiggling. This game’s in the fridge, folks.’’
*** Gotta give Flash some props, he comes up with some good ones from time to time.
*** Linsky – put that on your Twitter feed.
*** Right off the bat, Kobe and JRich exchange pleasantries. Again. This has got to be the third or fourth time. Whatever the case, it’s not a good idea. The Black Mamba is fired up now.
*** Any more fired up, he’s likely to spontaneously combust.
*** Bryant scores the next 6 points in a row and the rout is on. The Lakers lead 100-75 with 9:10 left in the game. Shortly thereafter, he heads to the bench for good, finishing with 29 points on 13-21 shooting from the field.
*** Afterward, during a post-game interview, Kobe comes up with the best line of the night. When asked if there was enough ball to go around with Bynum back in the lineup he said: “It’s not an issue. I eat first, everybody knows that.’’
*** When Adam Morrison checks into the game with 8:24 to play, you know things have gotten out of hand. Let garbage time begin.
*** Garbage time or not, Shannon Brown has some unfinished business to care of. He has a reputation to uphold, a reputation as one of the top dunkers in the League.
*** Brown delivers with 8:10 left, taking off a foot behind the restricted area and soaring to the rim for the one-handed flush. If this guy doesn’t participate in the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend this year, I’m not watching.
And if Goran Dragic doesn’t particpate in the Skills Challenge – I’m not watching either.
*** Bynum was mobbed by the media and had plenty to talk about: “I felt great,” he said. “My teammates were looking for me. A lot of those baskets I got tonight were lobs. Their team relies on their outside game and their legs, so our plans was to beat them up on the inside.”
“Outside the locker room, Gentry spoke quietly and tipped his cap to L.A. “They took us out of our game,” he says. “The Lakers are a great team without any weaknesses. We couldn’t match up with Bynum. We didn’t come out loose, playing our game. We ran out of gas. It was a long trip.”
*** In the locker room, a drained Nash faces the questions. He ended the night with 13 points, 5 assists, and a host of uncharacteristic turnovers. “We were flat. We had tired legs. We missed shots that we normally knock down, he says. “When the legs go, that’s what happens. No excuses, they played a great game. We’ll put this one behind us.”
*** Phil Jackson was typically subdued: “It’s a good win,’’ he said. “We have to take it into perspective. They played a back-to-back game and came off the home floor on a road game.”