Richard Grant once famously said that the value of identity is that it often comes with purpose. Put another way, knowing who you are is a powerful tool precisely because it drives us to know what we are working towards.
This is true for many of us in the day-to-day trenches of modern life of course, but it is perhaps more applicable for groups than individuals. When a collective assemblage knows what its group personality is, and what makes its character unique, it becomes more driven, more determined to achieve its goal.
If identity creates purpose, and personality is what drives intent, we have seen a shift in the dynamics of the Western Conference Finals: it is the Suns who know who they are, who are embracing their sense of self, and who suddenly look like if as they remember their purpose.
The Lakers? They seem more lost than the travelers of Oceanic 815. All it took was an active zone defense for them to forget who they are and forget where their strength lies.
Perhaps this is a case of selective memory loss or short-term amnesia, and the return to the familiar confines of the Staples Center will jog Los Angeles’ collective memory.
But what if it doesn’t? What if the Lakers cannot reaffirm their identity as a team that uses its size and strength to win ball games? In that case, they could very soon be staring up at the Suns in a 3-2 deficit and wondering aloud ‘what just happened?’
Credit Phoenix for that turnabout – they are the ones that have duped Los Angeles into becoming a stand-still, corner jump shooting team these past two games. They have also been the ones outhustling and outworking the Lakers for every loose ball and every long rebound.
The Suns haven’t forgotten who they are. The Lakers have reacted to Phoenix’s active zone by forgetting to go into the paint and settling for low-percentage threes from below-average shooters
By contrast, the Suns just keep doing everything right. Their bench outperformed Los Angeles’ so handily in the two games in Phoenix that to merely call it an advantage is to grossly undersell its dominance. The Phoenix bench destroyed the Lakers. And not just the Lakers’ bench either. In the fourth quarter they took it straight to their starters, and made big shot after big shot to the point that you had to question whether bringing the starters back in would be a downgrade.
Just as important as those big shots the Phoenix bench hit on their fourth quarter run was their disruptive defense. They confounded Derrick Fisher and Jordan Farmar to the point that the Lakers went completely away from the only thing that was working for them through three quarters: the old “get it to Kobe and get out of the way” routine.
Bryant was masterful in his efficiency and sense of direct attack. He hit pull-ups from any angle, and displayed the full range of the NBA’s most complete offensive arsenal of moves and shotmaking ability. But he went long stretches in the fourth without touching the ball and became visibly frustrated with his teammates, waving his arms in disgust as they launched contested shots and overdribbled into turnovers in the lane.
Bryant knew it was better that he initiate from the wing, and better still if he attacked with the dribble drive against the zone. As he continues to hit pull-ups from the midrange, the Suns defense began to sag out more and more on him, drawing the zone towards him and leaving the lane wide open for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to cut through clearly for a lay-in.
Only that latter didn’t happen. Instead we saw the rest of the Lakers stand around flat-footed and wait in the corner for long range threes and a plethora of foot-on-the-line twos, as known as the most useless shot in basketball.
On the other end, Amar’e Stoudemire continues to be an absolute beast in the mid-range and driving to the rim with a vengeance. Once he realized that Andrew Bynum’s lack of mobility would not allow him to get to his spot in front of the rim, Stoudemire merely put his head down and went to work, driving into and around Gasol without a second thought.
Of course the question now becomes which Phoenix team will we see on Thursday in Los Angeles. We saw their true-self, their most comfortable identity as a team on Tuesday, as they dictated pace of play and hit shots repeatedly within the first 12 seconds on the shot clock. But can that maintain that? And can their zone, which at its core is a gimmicky defense that no championship team should ever have to rely on, hold for another game?
Time will tell.
It will tell whether their early offense will stay consistent and if Channing Frye can continue his success after breaking through Tuesday.
It will tell whether the Lakers will run Artest and Odom to the rim and the short corner instead of camping them in a position to miss more threes.
It will tell if the Suns can build on their seemingly ever-growing confidence and belief in themselves.
And it will tell us if the Lakers can show patience and attack the Suns weakest defenders (i.e. Stoudemire) more regularly.
More than anything, time will tell us who these teams really are. After all, you are what you repeatedly do. We thought we knew what that meant for both of these squads after two games in Los Angeles. Now just a few days later, that has been turned around.
So who are these Lakers? Who are these Suns? We should find out Thursday, and see their sense of purpose grow from there.