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May 30, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Beaten by the Best

by Kevin Pelton

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L.A. Lakers 111, at Phoenix 103 (L.A. Lakers win series 4-2)
Pace: 87.9
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 126.6, Phoenix 116.9

The Phoenix Suns were good. The Los Angeles Lakers were better. That sums up the Western Conference Finals, as well as the closing minutes of their deciding game.

With 2:18 left, Steve Nash's reverse layup got Phoenix, which once trailed by 18 points, back within three. The Suns had the momentum on their side, not to mention a home crowd, but the Lakers had Kobe Bryant. Bryant's cold-blooded contested jumper kept Phoenix at bay. Two possessions later, with the Suns down five and desperately in need of a stop to maintain any hope of extending their season, Bryant did it again. Grant Hill did yeoman's work on defense, contesting Bryant as well as possible. It just didn't matter.

That's not to say Phoenix won't be able to look back on things from Game Six with regret. The Suns were poor defensively in the first quarter, lackluster in the second and third and got destroyed on the defensive glass, which proved costly in what ultimately became a very close game.

Still, the Lakers won this much more than Phoenix lost it. Their hot outside shooting (10 three-pointers in 24 attempts, 41.7 percent accuracy beyond the arc) and the second chances forced the Suns out of the zone that had helped them in the previous three games and back into a man-to-man defense after halftime. Meanwhile, the Lakers maintained their improved defensive effort from Game Five. They took away the easy buckets that killed them during Phoenix's second-half run on Thursday and competed in the half court, especially when Andrew Bynum was on the floor.

The Lakers did an excellent job of defending the paint through the first three quarters. They made Amar'e Stoudemire's life especially difficult. Stoudemire still got his--27 points, including 13 from the line--but he shot just 7-of-20 from the field. Only twice all season (one of them against the Lakers in the regular season) did Stoudemire miss so many shot attempts. He looked frustrated by his inability to get clean looks. In what might have been his Phoenix finale, Stoudemire was also a no-show on the glass, grabbing just two defensive boards in 43 minutes.

What made the Lakers' defense on Stoudemire so effective was that they were able to stop him without conceding open threes. In particular, they kept Jason Richardson (2-of-6 from downtown) quiet. Stoudemire exacerbated the issue by failing to find open teammates on the perimeter when the Lakers brought double-team help, but the Lakers also rotated very well.

Predictably, the Suns got back in it with their bench on the floor. Phil Jackson decided to rest Bryant to start the fourth quarter, which was costly at the time. Replacement Sasha Vujacic escalated his personal feud with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic by clocking Dragic in the face after he scored, drawing a flagrant foul that gave Phoenix two points at the free throw line and possession. All told, the Suns went on an 8-2 run before Bryant returned, and maintained the momentum thereafter.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, Alvin Gentry faced another difficult decision: Roll with his hot reserves or bring back his starting perimeter players at the under-six minutes media timeout. Phoenix scored just once in its next three possessions, and the Lakers got a backbreaking score on a possession that consumed nearly a full minute thanks to an offensive board. That spurred Gentry to take a 20-second timeout and get Nash, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley back in the game.

Nash was valiant as ever in defeat, making eight shots in 11 attempts (including all six of his two-point tries) and handing out nine assists. The Suns also got a big effort from Channing Frye, who played 40 minutes, scored 12 points and was their leading defensive rebounder by a mile with 11. For his sake, hopefully this effort is the lingering memory of his season and not his miserable shooting slump to start the series.

The Lakers came out with a great philosophy for attacking the zone, exploiting the weak spots, especially in the short corners. The stunner was that Ron Artest was a big part of that, playing intelligent but aggressive basketball in the first quarter. He had 12 of his 25 points in the period, shooting 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range. (Artest doesn't want anyone questioning his decisions to take threes anymore.)

He only played 20 minutes, fouled four times and had a middling plus-minus (+3), but I still thought this was Andrew Bynum's best game in a while. He was terrific on defense, either protecting the rim or chasing Nash around after a switch. It took some high-angle (and typically low-percentage) rainbow jumpers for Nash to beat Bynum, who kept him out of the paint. On offense, Bynum helped set the tone for the Lakers on the offensive glass.

Ultimately, we'll remember this game for Bryant's heroics. The Lakers were +19 with Bryant on the floor, meaning they were outscored by 11 in the seven minutes he sat out. That's a pretty sizeable difference. With Phoenix bottling up Pau Gasol (nine points in 41 minutes), the Lakers needed every one of Bryant's 37 points, and he made good on difficult shot attempts time and again when the Lakers needed to be bailed out on offense. The last two rounds might have been the best basketball we've seen from Bryant, and while that could be written off as a bad matchup against Utah, the Suns threw good defensive players and a variety of schemes at him to little avail.

At the end, all Gentry could do was laugh after Bryant followed his big shot with a playful pat to the coach's backside. What else could Gentry do? His team was good, but Bryant and the Lakers were better.

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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