- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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PHOENIX -- Kobe Bryant walked up to the postgame podium after the Los Angeles Lakers' 115-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday and launched into a diatribe, pounding away at his point so often that even the dude from "Memento" wouldn't need a tattoo to remember the gist of it.
Bryant didn't care about how well he played. His brilliance was rendered irrelevant by his team's lack of defense.
Mention No. 1: "Our defense could have been much better, I think."
That's how the speech started, and really, that's how the Lakers' chances of making the sun set on Phoenix's season with a commanding 3-1 series lead ended. Los Angeles let the Suns shoot 48.8 percent from the field, make 11 3-pointers and get to the foul line for 32 attempts.
The result is a Western Conference finals series tied 2-2, with the series headed back to Los Angeles for Game 5 on Thursday.
Mention No. 2: "Coming up here, we lost a sense of urgency defensively. I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone."
L.A. spent two days diagramming ways to get inside the teeth of the Suns' 2-3 zone after the surprise scheme baited them into going 9-for-32 on 3-pointers and coughing up 17 turnovers in Game 3. The attention to detail helped, as the Lakers put five guys in double figures, cut the turnovers down to six and shot 49.5 percent from the field as a team. But the improvement came at a cost.
Mention No. 3: "I think it kind of flipped our attention to detail defensively. Our focus was on the other side of the floor, which doesn't win championships. So we need to get back to ground zero when it comes to that."
While zoning in on busting the Suns' zone, the Lakers didn't remember the "defense wins championships" mantra that put them in position to win back-to-back titles in the first place.
Mention No. 4: "We lost the game because our defense sucked."
No explanation necessary.
Mention No. 5: "Like I said, we've got to do a much better job defensively. Paying attention to [Phoenix's bench], all of them, and staying in front of your man and things like that."
Hey Kobe, you already said that. I suppose seeing an opposing team's second unit score 54 points to my bench's 20 would make my eloquence elude me as well.
Mention No. 6: "Looking forward to the challenge. I know my guys are. [We need] to get back to the basics of playing defense the right way."
That answer was Kobe's reference to the Lakers' trying to win Game 5 and, you know, defend their home court.
Mention No. 7: "Our attention needs to be on the defensive end, period. That's second-chance opportunities [as well]."
Those supposedly speedy yet slight Suns outrebounded the lengthy Lakers by 15 and pulled down an obscene 18 offensive rebounds. And you couldn't even blame it on Andrew Bynum's knee. The Lakers had their much-maligned 7-footer in there, and he mixed it up to the tune of 12 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes. The Suns still dominated the glass.
Mention No. 8: "I was more aggressive in the second quarter. Felt the game slipping away, got going, [made] some shots [and] kept it going. But that has nothing to do with us getting to the next round. We can't -- offensively, we scored enough points. We've got to do a better job defensively, period."
As good as Bryant was, going 15-for-22 from the field to finish with 38 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds (15 of those points coming in the second quarter), the Suns' offense as a whole was right there with him. In the 22 possessions Phoenix had following a Bryant shot, the Suns were nearly as effective, going 9-for-15 from the field and 7-for-8 from the foul line to rack up 27 points, plus three turnovers.
This could have been the series in which we just sat in a state of awestruck appreciation of Bryant, because really, has he ever played any better? Through four games he's averaging 33.8 points, 9.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent from the field. Instead, we're wondering if the Lakers have what it takes to stop the Suns, who are averaging 113 points per game in the series. If the Lakers weren't scoring 126 points per game and shooting an incredible 57.8 percent from the field, they could be down in this series. Easily.
Which brings us to Mention No. 9: "That's not what wins championships. Everybody wants to talk about the offensive side of the ball. It has nothing to do with it. Gotta defend."
Bryant said the "D" word nine times in the aftermath of Tuesday's loss. One mention for every day between Tuesday and June 3, when the NBA Finals are set to begin.
The only question now: Will the Lakers be there to defend their title?
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
10hMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins