LOS ANGELES – Late Wednesday afternoon, before the second installment of this all-but-finished Western Conference Finals, Suns coach Alvin Gentry spoke of the need to hold the Lakers to a more modest shooting percentage, say, something just south of 50 percent.
Perhaps that was asking a little too much of a team that has still to unlearn the lessons of a previous era, in which players were expected to chuck up a shot in seven seconds or less. That's no reason not to heed Phoenix' progress, though. In Game 1, the Lakers shot 58 percent. In Game 2, the Suns knocked that down to a mere 57.7.
"Well, what can you say?" Gentry would ask later. "We can't slow them down."
The coach noted that his players did "a great job" on Kobe Bryant. But Bryant had 13 assists - four of them going to Pau Gasol, who finished with, oh, 29 points.
"Then," added Gentry, "...we double-team Pau and they go to Lamar." That would be Lamar Odom, who ended his evening with 17 points and 11 rebounds - six more than Amar'e Stoudemire, who said that Odom was "lucky" to have pulled down 19 in the previous game.
"We get it out of Lamar's hand and Jordan Farmar makes shots," said Gentry.
"Jordan Farmar," said Kobe Bryant, paying homage to the three-pointer and a steal which began the final quarter. "The momentum of the game. ...he was single-handedly responsible for changing that at the start of the fourth."
I guess I'm obliged to mention that the score was tied at 90 going into the fourth quarter. By the same token, I should remind you that the Suns could actually get a game, conceivably (though highly doubtful) two, when the series goes to Arizona. That won't change anything, though. The Suns don't match up with the Lakers at all. What's more, even if they did, they still don't play the kind of defense a team needs to go to the Finals. Not even close. What will happen in US Airways Center depends largely on how much the Lakers want rest for the sore knees of Bryant and Andrew Bynum.
When Jordan Farmar's beating you, the path to defeat is inexorable. Hence, Gentry's final, semi-jesting remark, a verbal white flag:
"I'm open for suggestions," he said. "Even the media."
In other words, bring on the Celtics. The chant - "We Want Boston!" - went up in the Staples Center with 3:15 still to play. I'm only surprised it took that long. Two years after being humiliated in the Finals - bowing out with a 131-92 loss in a Game 6 in Boston - the Lakers get another chance.
For Los Angeles, there are two overriding issues. First, how personally did Bryant take that defeat? Second, Pau Gasol. With Wednesday night in evidence, he is the most improved component in the Lakers' roster. But how much better is he now than then? Can he stand up to a roughhouse defense, exactly unlike the one he has faced in the Phoenix Suns?
Phoenix held its opponent to 124 points on Wednesday, an improvement over the 128 in the first game. Also, somehow, the Suns managed to hold Bryant under 40 this time. On the other hand, six Lakers finished in double figures.
"At this time of year," said Steve Nash, "it's asking a little bit too much of the offense."
"How do you fix that?"
"It's a tough one," he said. "They're bigger. At times we tried to front the post. At other times we tried to double..."
To Nash's everlasting credit, he didn't ask for help from the media horde.
Actually, you couldn't help but feel for him. There's the trace of a bruise underneath the right eye, where he absorbed his latest facial trauma during the last series with the Spurs. It wasn't as dramatic as the gruesome, blood-spurting gash to his nose he took several years ago against San Antonio, but it was enough to remind you of his plight.
He'll continue to pile up the assists only to lose, once again, before the championship round.
"We've got to find a way to slow them down," he said.
Nash can't slow down the Lakers any more than he can slow the passage of time. He's 36, and Gentry says this past season - a campaign that saw him average more than 17 points and nine assists - was a finer effort than either of his two MVP years.
This time around he got through the Spurs, still, this season will end like all the others. The Lakers will move on. Steve Nash will recede from view. He's the best player never to play for a title. But you'll forget all that even before you hear the first chorus of "Boston sucks!"