Suns find comfort zone against Lakers

By Bob Baum
Associated Press / May 25, 2010

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PHOENIX — Losing one game in Phoenix was tolerable for the Los Angeles Lakers. Two losses and things start to get uncomfortable for the reigning NBA champions.

It’s safe to say that coach Phil Jackson was giving his team a refresher course on how to beat a zone defense when the Lakers worked out at US Airways Center yesterday after Phoenix employed the strategy to great success in its 118-109 victory Sunday night. The Suns can square the series at 2-2 with another home win in Game 4 tonight.

Jackson said he had never seen a team use the zone so much in a playoff game since the NBA legalized the defense in the 2001-02 season, not that Kobe Bryant seemed all that concerned.

When asked if a day of practice would be enough to work out how to attack the zone, he answered sarcastically.

“Nah,’’ he said. “We’re doomed.’’

The Suns used the zone much of the second quarter and the entire second half. Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said that was more than he anticipated but he stuck with it because it worked when nothing else had against the Lakers, who averaged 126 points and shot 58 percent in the series’ first two games.

There were inferences yesterday that the zone is somehow an “unmanly’’ defense, that real teams play man-to-man.

“We have to try every way we can to find a situation where we can win,’’ Gentry said. “Whatever that takes, that’s what it is. If we have to play our ‘girlie zone’ as somebody said, we’ll play our ‘girlie zone.’ ’’

Steve Nash’s nose and Andrew Bynum’s knee were main subjects of discussion yesterday.

Nash has a small nasal fracture from a fourth-quarter collision with Derek Fisher but said he’s had “a handful’’ of broken noses and expected to be fine for Game 4. After all, he played the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals with his right eye swollen shut after taking an elbow from Tim Duncan.

“To me I think he’s as tough as they come,’’ Gentry said.

Bynum got in early foul trouble and had just 2 points and two rebounds in 7 1/2 minutes Sunday night. After the game, Jackson talked about perhaps having the big center, who has a small meniscus tear in his right knee, sit out the next game. But Jackson said yesterday that Bynum would play.

Jackson isn’t about to rest Bynum just to get him more ready for a potential NBA Finals matchup against Boston.

“The only thing there is is the Phoenix series,’’ Jackson said. “If we don’t just stay focused on that, there’s nothing else. You have to play immediately for this series and forget about whatever else is down the road.’’

The taller Lakers dominated the inside game in the first two contests, but Phoenix’s front line duo of Amare Stoudemire and Robin Lopez outscored the Lakers’ trio of Pau Gasol, Bynum, and Lamar Odom, 62-35, in Game 3. Gasol scored 23 on 11-of-14 shooting, but Odom made just 4 of 14 shots for 10 points.

Criticized widely for his play in the first two games of the series, Stoudemire attacked the rim from the start. In addition to making 14 of 22 field goals, he was 14 of 18 at the foul line. He had 11 rebounds, two more than in the first two games combined.

Lopez scored 20 on 8-of-10 shooting and his 7-foot presence anchored the Suns’ zone. He played 29 1/2 minutes in just his third game back after being sidelined with a bulging disk in late March.

In all, the Suns made 37 of 42 free throws to 16 of 20 for the Lakers.

That, Bryant said, was the difference.

Stoudemire knows he will be Los Angeles’s No. 1 target in Game 4.

“I’m not sure what they’re going to do,’’ he said, “but I guarantee you Phil is going to come up with something slick.’’

Bryant nearly had a triple-double with 36 points, 11 assists, and 9 rebounds but was just 2 of 8 on threes.

He said the Lakers were lured into taking a franchise playoff-record 32 3-point shots, making nine.

He said the team also needs to clean up some “silly’’ turnovers. The Lakers had 17, five by Bryant, to the Suns’ seven.

Bryant said, not surprisingly, that no one on his team was panicking. And just when was the last time Bryant panicked on the basketball court? In high school, maybe?

“When my shorts fell down,’’ he said. “They were too big.’’

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