PHOENIX - MAY 25: Kobe Bryant #24 and Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers walk on the court during their 106-115 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at US Airways Center on May 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
This was supposed to be a business trip to Phoenix for the Lakers, but they forgot to pack their defense when they left Staples Center.
The result was a Suns team that was in the zone -- both on offense and defense -- and they outscored the Lakers 115-106 in Game 4. That ties the series at 2-2 heading back to Staples Center for a crucial Game 5 on Thursday.
Phoenix has figured out the little things and they are playing like a confident team.
That confidence starts with the zone defense. The Lakers played better against it, to the tune of 105 points and 49 percent shooting. The Lakers scored, and at times they did what they wanted to do by getting the ball into the teeth of the Suns zone with passes to Pau Gasol in the high post, or off penetration.
But then they'd stop doing it for stretches. They'd take the path of least resistance and just go back to taking threes -- they took 28 in this game after taking 32 last game. The Lakers are not a good three point shooting team, and they hit just 32 percent of those threes in Game 4.
That means a lot of long rebounds to fuel the Suns offense. And for the Suns bench, it was like rocket fuel. The Suns bench had 54 points (to the Lakers 20) on 62.5 percent shooting. The Suns took those rebounds and were off to the races -- the Suns had 40 second quarter points largely fueled by those missed shots becoming Suns shots before the Lakers could get back and set their defense. The Suns could not seem to miss in the second quarter -- even Channing Frye, who was 0-16 coming into this game, went 4 of 8 from three.
The same thing happened in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers had tied the game but the Suns pulled away on three consecutive threes, two of them off missed Lakers shots.
"What was disappointing for me is the fact we took five threes in that sequence of action where they made up the ground when we took the lead in the fourth quarter," said Phil Jackson in a televised interview on NBA TV after the game.
The chance to get out and run made the Suns the aggressors. Again. Phoenix made 22 free throws on 32 attempts; the Lakers were 7 of 13. The reason was not the referees. It was that the Lakers were settling for jumpers while the Suns were attacking. Further evidence of that, the Suns had 18 offensive rebounds.
Phoenix also exploited Andrew Bynum, who is clearly hurting. Bynum was a bellwether for the Lakers, having a solid offensive game (12 points) but costing his team on defense multiple times.
Kobe tried to take control himself, and he put on an impressive display of shooting on his way to 38 points (he hit 15 of 22 shots and was 6 of 9 from three). But late in the game the Suns started sending kamikaze double teams at him to get the ball out of his hands (same with Gasol) -- let anyone else try to beat them, but not Kobe. It worked. The other Lakers took threes and missed.
"I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone, I think it kind of flipped our attention to detail defensively," Bryant said in his televised interview. "Our focus was on the other end of the floor, which doesn't win championships."
If the Lakers are going to win a championship -- or even compete for one in the Finals -- they need to get that defensive attention back. And fast. By Thursday night.