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Fran Blinebury

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A feisty zone and a productive bench are two big reasons the Suns have evened the series at 2-2.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Suns' Twilight Zone has put new wrinkle in West finals


Posted May 27 2010 9:31AM

LOS ANGELES -- You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination -- Next stop, the Suns' Twilight Zone.

Do-do-do-do. Do-do-do-do.

Apologies to Rod Serling, but Kobe Bryant and the Lakers can probably hear the theme music playing inside their heads every time the Suns shift over to their zone defense.

Up is down. Black is white. Right is left. Nothing is as it seems it should, most especially the Western Conference finals with Phoenix using a feisty, if not iron-fisted, zone to even up the series at 2-2.

"Am I enjoying it?" repeated Jared Dudley. "Hey, anything that works. This is a team that we're having trouble stopping, giving up 100 points a game. You're not gonna stop them. I've come to the realization that you've just got to slow them down and let our offense take over."

It's not likely to become the hot topic over the summer at coaching clinics and every team in the league won't likely be playing a version of the Phoenix zone next season. That is, unless Kobe and his teammates keep settling for long jump shots rather than working the ball inside to exploit their obvious size advantage.

"No, it's not like we're going out there and shutting off the faucet and not letting them score points at all," said Louis Amundson. "They're still out there scoring, but they're just not doing it in the same way they were in the first two games.

"We've come out with our zone and we've given them a different kind of look and it's something that has just taken them a little bit out of their rhythm. I think that's really all we were trying to do, but it's made enough of a difference."

There were so many occasions in Games 1 and 2 at the Staples Center when the Lakers big men -- Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom -- appeared to be playing volleyball over the heads of a kindergarten class the way they moved the ball around up high and inside to score layups and dunks.

The Suns had to do something.

Phil Jackson has made suggestions that teams use a zone to "hide" poor defensive players. But Alvin Gentry isn't taking the bait, but merely responding with a smile. He jokingly refers to the Suns' "girlie zone" and speaks in reverence about Jackson's 10 championship rings and acts like all of the Phoenix players and coaching staff are simply happy to be permitted inside the arena on game nights.

The changes from Game 3 to 4 were slight.

"The only thing we tried to do is look at the tape and we said, 'OK, where would you attack us?' And we saw some areas where we thought we were vulnerable.

"So we talked to our guys about being well aware of that. One of them was the high screen and roll with Kobe. We thought we would have to get up and at least make him a driver, not have him come off and just rise up and shoot the ball.

"We also thought that they would try to pound the ball inside a lot more. So we were going to have to be inside and then close out the shooters. And I thought we did a good job with that."

While they're playing the zone, the Suns defenders are also matching up with the Lakers big men.

"I think that's the whole key right there," Gentry said. "Although it's a zone, we really try to match up. Initially everyone has to have a man. And then, from there, you know, we tried to pass guys off and we tried to stay in our zone.

"I thought our guys did a good job of communicating. ... At the end of the night, they still had 42 points in the paint. But a lot more of those came at the end of the game where they drove and we decided to stay with the 3-point shooters."

The Suns might as well have left their charter plane back at home and flown into L.A. for Game 5 on the wings of the zone.

"The confidence is rising," said Jason Richardson. "We've definitely stopped them from getting the ball down low to those big guys and that's important because it can just get demoralizing when they score easily over the top.

"We can live with their jump shots. Kobe hit a lot of shots. Derek Fisher hit some shots. We can live with that, because at least we don't have Bynum and Gasol living down there and beating us on the post. We're able to scramble in there, especially when it comes to rebounding the ball. It's been a big help and a big part of our success."

It's a zone that is as much a state of mind, both for the Lakers who are trying to figure things out, and for the Suns, who are acting as if they've been handed the Excalibur sword as a weapon that can even the odds against a stronger, more powerful foe.

"They're bigger than us, we know that," said Steve Nash. "Most people can make an argument that they're better than us. But we've got a lot of heart and a lot of determination and find ways to win little battles."

It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.

It's the Suns' Twilight Zone that has given them a chance.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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