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 defence when the Lakers worked out at US Airways Center on Monday after Phoenix employed the strategy to great success in its 118-109 victory on Sunday night. The Suns can square the series at 2-2 with another home win in Game 4 on Tuesday night.
Jackson said he had never seen a team use the zone so much in a playoff game since the NBA legalized the defence 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 per cent in the series' first two games.
There were inferences on Monday that the zone is somehow an "unmanly" defence, 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.'"
Injuries to key players on both teams
Steve Nash's nose and Andrew Bynum's knee were main subjects of discussion on Monday.
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. "You saw what happened in the game last night, he tried to rearrange his own nose. My wife was in a car accident and broke her nose. It almost made her physically sick to see him grab his nose and just try to rearrange it himself."
Bynum got in early foul trouble and had just two points and two rebounds in 7½ minutes on Sunday night. After the game, Jackson talked about perhaps having the big centre, who has a small meniscus tear in his right knee, sit out the next game. But Jackson said on Monday that Bynum would play.
"I talked to him this morning. He feels like he's OK," the Lakers coach said.
Jackson isn't about to rest Bynum just to get him more ready for a 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."
Suns' big men come through in Game 3
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 29½ 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' 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."
Lakers 'lured' into perimeter shooting
Bryant nearly had a triple double with 36 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds but was just 2 of 8 on three-pointers. He said the Lakers were lured into taking a franchise playoff record 32 three-point shots, making nine of them.
"We're not a great three-point shooting team consistently anyway," he said. "We did have good looks and sometimes get baited into taking those, some of them with the shot clock being low, granted. But we can do a much better job the first 17 seconds of the clock."
He said the team also needs to clean up some "silly" turnovers. The Lakers had 17, five by Bryant, to the Suns' seven.
Jason Richardson made 4 of 7 three-pointers on Sunday night. The rest of the Suns were 1 of 13. Channing Frye's woes worsened. He went 0 of 7, 0 of 5 on threes, and is 1 of 20 for the series. He has missed 17 in a row.
Frye was the last player off the practice court, shooting jumper after jumper. He was miffed about having to answer questions about "something little" like his shooting problems after such a big win.
"Sometimes the ball doesn't go in, man. It's just one of those things. It's just not going in," he said. "It's going to go in tomorrow, though, I'm going to tell you that. They're going to go in tomorrow."
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."