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May 26, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
No Ordinary Bench

by Kevin Pelton

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at Phoenix 115, L.A. Lakers 106 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 85.8
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 136.0, L.A. Lakers 121.7

An important caveat: Because the Seattle Storm's schedule continues to conflict with the Western Conference Finals, I saw at most about five minutes of game action from Game Four. We are big believers in the importance of watching the games at Basketball Prospectus, but it simply wasn't possible to even review the tape and complete this breakdown in a timely manner. Instead, I've relied on the observations that came into my Twitter inbox during the game as well as the boxscore. If you feel that's not good enough and want to click away now, you'll get no complaint from me.

I can't remember the last time an NBA team had a bench as memorable as the Phoenix Suns' reserves have been this season. You'd probably have to go back to Sacramento's Bench Mob or Detroit's Alternators early this decade to find one that made a similar dent in our collective basketball consciousness. (Jon Barry was not only a phenomenal shooter but also great at coining nicknames for his benches.) There have been plenty of great reserves since then, sure, but the Suns stand out for their depth and ability to successfully play an entire five-man lineup of reserves for extended stretches as well as the way their second unit has swung games in these playoffs.

It was clear late in the season that Phoenix's bench was the best in the league. The playoffs, however, have given the Suns' second unit a chance to win over a national audience. Already, Goran Dragic had his moment in the spotlight, leading Phoenix to a Game Three win at San Antonio. Tuesday night, the Suns' reserves as a unit submitted their tour de force, swinging a crucial game in the Western Conference Finals with their performance. They even briefly trended on Twitter.

The Phoenix bench first entered en masse with the game tied after one quarter. Over the next 6:50, the second unit of Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye and Louis Amundson put 24 points on the board as part of an eventual 41-point quarter to outscore the Lakers by seven points.

By the start of the fourth quarter, however, the Lakers had all but erased the deficit. The Suns' reserves reentered clinging to a one-point lead that was briefly lost to a Jordan Farmar three-pointer. Over the next 6:47, Phoenix outscored the Lakers 18-3, building a comfortable 13-point lead that was still at nine when Alvin Gentry finally went back to one of his starters, replacing Dragic with Steve Nash.

In truth, the Suns' bench hadn't been great in this series. In Game One, Phoenix actually played much better with its starting lineup on the floor, and Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar outshot the Suns in Game Two. Game Three saw the Suns' reserves have a rare off game. The extended slump of Channing Frye, who entered Tuesday having missed 19 of his 20 shot attempts, was a big factor in why Phoenix hadn't gotten its usual production out of the bench. Frye finally found his three-point stroke in the second quarter, knocking down three shots beyond the arc and getting his team going.

As a group, the Suns' reserves scored 54 points on 20-of-32 shooting, good for a .750 True Shooting Percentage. When the five players were on the floor as a unit, a total of just under 16 minutes, Phoenix was +15.

In a sense, the fact that Game Four was really two very different games--the Lakers' starters generally outplaying their Suns counterparts, only to see that good work undone by the bench--makes it a little hard to discuss strategy moving forward.

Overall, the Phoenix zone defense was only marginally effective on Tuesday. The Lakers scored at a rate of better than 120 points per 100 possessions, which is only acceptable in comparison with how easily L.A. scored in the first two games of the series. The Suns did have more success in the fourth quarter, which could be attributed either to the second unit's rotations or a tweak which saw Phoenix play what SI.com's Chris Ballard described as being "as close to (a box-and-one defense) as you'll see in the NBA."

The change helped the Suns hold Kobe Bryant, who had run amuck for a hyper-efficient 31 points on 18 shooting possessions in the second and third quarters, to seven points in the final period. Bryant only attempted four field goals and two free throws in the quarter.

Despite Phoenix doing a much better job on Pau Gasol, the Lakers still found gaps in the zone inside, shooting 57.1 percent on two-point attempts. Andrew Bynum (6-of-7 from the field) was helpful in this regard, though Bynum also ended up on the wrong end of both Phoenix bench surges and had a -16 plus-minus.

The problem for L.A., then, was beyond the arc. The Lakers attempted threes on nearly a third of their shots (28 of 91). Bryant drained six of them in nine attempts, taking advantage of the looks the Suns' zone conceded. Everyone else on the roster, however, was 3-of-19, including 2-of-12 from the Lakers' bench. What's unclear to me, as it was after Game Three, is whether this is simply a correction from a team whose Achilles' heel has always been outside shooting or because Phoenix has done a better job of contesting shots than during the first two games of this series, during which the Lakers were very accurate from downtown. If the Lakers were due to slump no matter what, even the credit the zone gets for dropping L.A.'s gaudy Offensive Ratings from Games One and Two goes away.

The Lakers are still searching for answers of their own at the defensive end. This was the Suns' best offensive outing of the series, a fact largely but not entirely attributable to bench play. The Lakers did a much better job of deterring Robin Lopez and Amar'e Stoudemire at the rim, holding them to combined 10-of-24 shooting, but they also put Phoenix's starters on the free throw line 23 times (including 12 attempts for Stoudemire) and were surprisingly vulnerable on the defensive glass. Lopez and Stoudemire combined for nine of the Suns' 18 offensive rebounds, and Phoenix's 43.9 percent offensive rebounding was most unlike the Suns' playoff predecessors.

All of that is a long way of saying I'm not sure what to expect Thursday when these teams resume their series at the Staples Center. Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference.com broke down the enormous difference between Lakers-Suns games in L.A. as compared to those in Phoenix this season, both during this series and the regular season. We'll see if the trend continues or if the adjustments the Suns have made--and their outstanding bench--can keep this series as competitive as it has been the last two games.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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