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Was the Zone Defense Key to Suns’ Victory?

There has been plenty of talk regarding coach Alvin Gentry and the Suns moving to a zone defense to slow the Lakers’ offense down. In the past two games, both Suns’ victories, Phoenix has used a zone defense on occasion (much more in game 4) and many are arguing it is the key to their wins. But is it?

Looking at Game 4, I do think the zone defense helped the Suns, but the Lakers lack of effort played a much larger role in the Suns’ victory. If you look at the stats, the Lakers out-shot the Suns from the floor, had more assists, had less turnovers, and more steals and blocks. Usually, if you install a “stifling defense”, your opponent doesn’t have better statistical numbers in so many varying categories.

The difference in the game, and why the Suns pulled out the victory, lies in the Lakers’ hustle and aggressiveness or lack thereof. The Suns destroyed the Lakers in rebounds by a margin of +15, while also getting to the line 32 times versus 13. Plenty of coaches won’t go to a zone because of the simple fact that they are worried about rebounding, yet we saw the Suns crushing the Lakers on the boards. That stat tells you immediately the effort the Suns were playing with versus the Lakers.

The free throw margin is also intriguing and it shows that the Lakers were settling for far too many jump shots and not attacking the rim. Yes, I will agree that the zone forced the Lakers to shoot more outside shots, but, as a counter, the Lakers needed to be more aggressive attacking the zone and not relying on so many jump shots. Even against a zone, teams can still get the ball to their bigs in the post. I am sure plenty of Laker fans will argue that the free throw discrepencay was referee bias, but even as fans, we need to be honest with ourselves–the Lakers settled on the offensive end.

If the Lakers played game 4 with assertiveness and in attack mode–which we will probably see in game 5–then they would have been fine and the zone talk would be a non-issue. It will be interesting to see the adjustments by both coaches in game 5.


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