After eight consecutive playoff victories, the Lakers found themselves on the other side of the scoreboard in a Game 3 loss to Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, struggling to get the ball inside while conceding 22 more free throws and committing 10 more turnovers than the Suns in a 118-109 result.
Kobe Bryant nearly reached his first career playoff triple-double with a 36-point, 11-assist, 9-rebound performance, but Amare Stoudemire scored 42 points while a foul-plagued Andrew Bynum played for just 7:31 and Lamar Odom fouled out late in the fourth.
“They attacked the hoop today and earned 42 foul shots,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. “We seemed to be staying home on the three-point shooters, and Stoudemire and (Robin) Lopez (carried) night for them.”
The Suns certainly took advantage of L.A.’s lack of Bynum inside, as Stoudemire made 14-of-22 field goals and Lopez 8-of-10 (20 total points), the whole team parading to the foul line, including 11 times in a tone-setting first quarter.
“I think the early fouls on our front court guys really impacted the game,” said Derek Fisher, who scored 18 points with five boards and three assists in a solid individual game. “That allowed them to get to the free throw line really on a consistent basis … we held them to a low shooting percentage most of the game but the free throws were just killing us.”
The Lakers did get what’s become customarily elite efficiency from Pau Gasol, who nailed 11-of-14 shots to improve his shooting percentage in the series to 69.6 percent, but he took just one of those shots in the fourth quarter after scoring 14 final quarter points in Game 2. Odom attempted 14 shots, but many came on the perimeter (0-of-4 from three) while Bynum attempted only one shot in his limited minutes.
“I think the zone defense caused us some problems because we weren’t able to get the ball in to Pau on a consistent basis,” said Fisher. “That’s when we’re at our best.”
Instead, the Lakers attempted 32 three-pointers, the most in playoff franchise history, with their previous high coming in the team’s Game 3 First Round loss in Oklahoma City.
“Thirty-two three-point shots is not what we want to do as a basketball team,” said Jackson, whose team had carved up Phoenix in the lane in Games 1 and 2 at STAPLES Center. “(Phoenix played) a better zone (defense) than they played (in Game 2). I think we figured it out in the third quarter, but we didn’t figure out defensively what we had to do.”
It didn’t help that L.A.’s best defensive presence lasted only two first quarter minutes before checking out with two fouls, and picked up foul No. 4 with 9:14 left in the third.
“Obviously (Bynum’s) been a key player all year,” said Gasol. “He can bring a lot to the table, defensively and offensively. He’s a big presence for us … of course I would like him to play more and produce more and help us.”
Even without Bynum, the Lakers took a brief lead with 8:47 to go in the fourth, as two free throws from Odom made it 90-89 before Phoenix outscored L.A. by 10 in the final eight minutes, making 10-of-12 free throws to finish 37-of-42 at the line.
“Stop hacking,” he said. “Simple as that. Play fundamentally sound, make them take tough shots.”
Many of those fouls were drawn by Stoudemire, who made 18 trips to the charity stripe, cementing an impressive individual game after taking some heat for his play and comments in L.A.
“He wasn’t going to come out here and roll over,” said Bryant. “Still, we could have done a better job keeping him off the free throw line. Even though Amare had an explosive game, we feel like we gave them way too many easy points at the free throw line.”
At the other end of the floor individually, Bryant was deadly with his shooting early on, making his first five and 7-of-9 first quarter shots for 15 points before beginning to dish off when Phoenix brought double-teams as the game went on. But he did have five of the team’s 17 turnovers.
“Some of them were bobbled balls and dribbling with your toe on the line, silly stuff,” he lamented. “Other ones came from their defense in the zone, and not reading lanes correctly, them getting hands on balls.”
Free throws, turnovers, too many threes, indeed, but the bottom line from L.A.’s perspective becomes getting a win in Game 4 so an opportunity to clinch the series in Game 5 at home is on the table.
The Lakers have won at least one road game in each of their last six playoff series.
“We’ll be OK,” said Ron Artest, who struggled with his shooting (4-for-13) as well. “We’ll come back and play hard and put it together and come back and get it.”
Until L.A. has that chance on Tuesday back at US Airways Center, your numbers:
1 More rebound needed for Kobe Bryant to reach his first career playoff triple-double, as he finished with 36 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
10 Turnover discrepancy, helping keep Phoenix ahead throughout most of the game, as L.A. committed 17 giveaways to just 10 from the Suns. Phoenix also shot 22 more free throws in the contest, making 37-of-42 (88.1%) to L.A.’s 16-of-20 (80%).
29 Days since L.A.’s last loss, which came on April 24 in Oklahoma City.
30.4 Combined shooting percentage of Ron Artest, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, who came into the game shooting 56.8% from the field including 11-of-19 (57.9%) from three-point range. They were a collective 4-of-13 (28.6%) from distance.
69.6 Pau Gasol’s shooting percentage in the series after another stellar shooting game, in which he made 11-of-14 shots (78.6%). Gasol, however, took just one fourth quarter shot a game after he scored 14 points in the final period.