at L.A. Lakers 128, Phoenix 107 (L.A. Lakers series 1-0)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 140.8, Phoenix 117.2
Hey, remember those long-ago times when the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to score and the Phoenix Suns boasted a much-improved defense? Yes, April was a crazy month.
In Game One of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers played offense at a level we haven't seen from the home team at the Staples Center since at least last season. Beating the Suns from all angles, the Lakers shot better than 60 percent on twos, knocked down nearly half of their three-point attempts and had just nine turnovers in 91 possessions.
It started, as it so often does, with Kobe Bryant. Bryant was locked in, torching every defender Phoenix sent his way. Those players, led by Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, did a decent job of keeping Bryant on the perimeter to little effect. He shot 3-of-6 from beyond the arc and 6-of-10 on long twos, scoring 21 of his 40 points on jumpers. When Bryant drove, it mostly ended with him at the free throw line, where he sunk 11 freebies in 12 attempts.
All told, Bryant need just 30 possessions to score 40 points. As Doug Collins noted on the TNT broadcast, comparing Bryant's efficiency (albeit with a clumsy stat, points per shot attempt, that ignores free throw possessions) to his strong series against the Jazz and less impressive one against Oklahoma City, it's just about impossible to beat the Lakers when Bryant is scoring frequently and at a high rate of efficiency.
As in the series with Utah, though, the Lakers' offense extended beyond Bryant. Pau Gasol got off to a monstrous start to what looks like it could be another excellent series for him. Gasol was effective from midrange and made 10 of his 13 shot attempts en route to 21 points.
Then there was Lamar Odom. It could be said, without much hyperbole, that this game turned on the matchup between Odom and Channing Frye, each team's top reserve big man and sixth starter. With the two starting fives on the floor, the game was essentially a draw--the Suns were +2 in the first quarter and the Lakers +3 in the second quarter. When both teams went small, however, with Frye replacing Robin Lopez and Odom stepping in for Andrew Bynum, that's when the Lakers surged ahead. Los Angeles was +24 in Odom's 31 minutes of action; Phoenix was -13 during the 20 minutes Frye played.
Odom is ideal in this series because of his ability to maintain the Lakers' paint advantage while also defending the Suns' shooters on the perimeter. L.A. did an excellent job contesting Frye's shots, and it didn't hurt that Frye simply had something of an off night. He missed six of his seven three-point attempts as well as his only try inside the arc.
Odom, meanwhile, came to play in the opener. He was everywhere on the glass, corralling 19 rebounds--a quarter of the total for both teams combined, despite the fact that he sat out 18 minutes. While on the floor, our estimate is that Odom gobbled up 39 percent of missed shots. That's four times the league average. When he wasn't patrolling the boards, Odom found time to score 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting. I know these statistical markers are pretty arbitrary, but Odom came within a point and a rebound of a 20-20 effort in the playoffs off the bench. I'd say that was a pretty good game.
I'm not sure there's anything Phoenix can do to counter that (true smallball, with Jared Dudley at the four, is an option, but Odom's length becomes even more of an advantage then). I'm also not sure the Suns will need to do anything. I'm an Odom supporter, but his M.O. is for games like this to occur out of nowhere, then taunt his team's fans thereafter. It's safe to assume he'll be less effective in Game Two.
Changes might be needed with Bryant, though he too should be somewhat less efficient from midrange no matter what Phoenix does. The Suns may want to commit to harder double-teams, especially if they can force Ron Artest to beat them from the perimeter. Artest remains the one Laker not really playing a part in the team's offensive resurgence. He shot 5-of-14 on Monday night and missed four of his five attempts from beyond the arc.
The lopsided margin on the scoreboard overshadowed the fact that Phoenix was just fine on offense. The Suns scored 117.2 points per 100 possessions, which is right in line with their regular-season and playoff averages. Yes, the Lakers took away the three-point line (Phoenix was 5-of-22, 22.7 percent from beyond the arc), but doing so required them to offer little help against the big man rolling to the basket after screening for Steve Nash. Nash handed out 13 assists in 28 minutes and Lopez (looking very spry for his first game action in more than a month and a half) combined with Amar'e Stoudemire for 37 points on 14-of-20 shooting.
One interesting option for Alvin Gentry might be to go bigger, especially if Frye stays cold. Lopez is not apparently under any minutes restriction, so extending his playing time could help if the Lakers remain more vulnerable in the paint than from the perimeter.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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