Don't be fooled. Despite the Lakers' dramatic win in Game 5, the series is far from over.
There are two significant reasons why this is so:
1) The Lakers lack a killer instinct.
2) The Lakers still haven't found a way to cope with Steve Nash's success in utilizing high screen/rolls.
First off, L.A. squandered a 17-point lead in the first half, but then fought off the Suns to gain an 18-point lead in the second half before letting that margin vanish. As a result they had to win the game three times.
Credit the Suns for their never-say-die attitude, but also give a nod to Alvin Gentry and his staff for making more effective in-game adjustments than did the Lakers.
Not that L.A. failed to refine its zone offense since losing Game 4. The Lakers welcomed the Suns to Staples Center by overloading one side of the court, then flashing weak-side players toward the ball either along the baseline, into the vicinity of the foul line, or sometimes flooding both areas with staggered cuts executed by two players. This led to multiple layups and also sucked in the defense so that L.A.'s perimeter shooters were open.
The hometown heroes also maneuvered the ball so that Steve Nash was guarding Kobe Bryant at the top of the key -- and Kobe was easily able to shoot over the smaller Nash.
Another between-games adjustment by Phil Jackson and his staff had Kobe, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom driving through the seams in the perimeter of the zone. The result was layups, pull-ups and kick-outs galore.
Also, since zone defenders don't have a specific player to box out, the Lakers stormed the offensive glass for profit. They retrieved 19 of their own missed shots, compared to the Suns' 12. Even so, two of Phoenix's offensive rebounds were secured in the last minute of the game and permitted Jason Richardson's accidental bank-shot to tie the score.
Moreover, since zone defenders don't have a specific player to guard, the Lakers were able to push the ball and take advantage of the resulting defensive mismatches and confusion.
For a few sequences, the Suns switched their 2-3 zone to a 1-3-1 alignment. This put significant pressure on the Lakers' wings but was too vulnerable in the shadow of the rim and was quickly abandoned.
However, on the two occasions when they spurted to their huge leads, the Lakers seemed to take their collective feet off the gas. Their passwork became sloppy, their off-ball movement lost its intensity, and too many shots were rushed.
In 62 possessions vs. Phoenix's zone, the Lakers scored 69 points. However, they also missed at least 10 layups -- which is a primary reason why they shot only 41.8 percent.
So it was that the Lakers' late-game shortcomings on the offensive end were mainly due to a diminishing of their concentration. Given the ease with which they dissected the Suns' zone, had the Lakers breathed fire for the duration, the game would have been a laugher.
Unfortunately, allowing Phoenix to rise from its own ashes will allow the Suns to play with tremendous confidence when the series returns to the US Airways Center on Saturday.
Secondly, the Lakers' game plan to contain the Suns' explosive screen/roll offense was simply to switch. This is precisely how San Antonio beat Phoenix in the 2007 Western Conference semifinals. Then as now, the Suns became so intent on taking advantage of the big-little and little-big mismatches that the normal flow of their offense was staunched.
In the Suns' fourth-quarter comeback against the Lakers, though, Little Stevie Wonder simply took over. Against Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, or whoever assumed the defensive assignment as a result of the high screen, Nash was easily able to knock down long jumpers and score on off-balance, wronged-legged floaters. His drives deep into the paint also so condensed the Lakers' defense that he had no trouble finding open teammates for both layups and 3-point attempts.
Otherwise, the Lakers did manage to clog the middle and mostly keep Amar'e Stoudemire quiet, and they took full advantage of Robin Lopez's clumsy footwork in a crowd. They also negated Goran Dragic by siccing his fellow countryman, Sasha Vujacic, on him and sitting on his left hand.
But the Lakers never did get a secure handle on Nash's brilliant use of S/Rs.
So far in the series, L.A. has tried to counter this situation by having the bigs show and Nash's defender hustling to recover, but their baseline rotations have been inept. Switching worked for a while in Game 5, but Nash eventually shredded this strategy.
What else can the Lakers do to stem Nash's S/R points and assists?
Because Nash is such a deadly perimeter shooter, they don't dare go under the screens. Because he's so quick and creative in the most minimal open spaces, they can't overplay the screen and force him away from it. In fact, all that's left is to double Nash with the screener's defender, tag 3-point aces such as Channing Frye, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley, and hope that the interior rotations can adequately protect the rim.
Defending top-notch S/Rs has been a season-long challenge for L.A., and nobody runs this play better than Nash.
It's therefore entirely conceivable that Phoenix will screen/roll the Lakers into submission in Game 6. And no matter where it may be played, anything can happen in a Game 7.