Just how pivotal is Thursday night's game in Los Angeles? Consider: Winners of Game 5s in a best-of-seven series hold a 129-26 record, and home teams have a staggering 117-38 record in the fifth game of a tied series. But while the Staples Center may give the Lakers an edge over Steve Nash & Co., five other factors will play a major role in tonight's outcome:
1. Busting the Suns' zone. Phoenix's shift to the zone defense has befuddled the Lakers. The "girly zone," as Alvin Gentry calls it, has turned L.A. into a primarily jump-shooting team. After shooting 33 three-pointers and getting to the line 56 times in Games 1 and 2, the Lakers launched 60 threes and earned only 33 trips to the foul line in their last two losses. The Suns have been able to effectively pressure the entry pass while Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom have failed to find any open seams in the paint. The Lakers want to play inside-out, and to do that, they are going to have to be patient, get the ball inside and force Phoenix to send double teams to help.
"[The zone] takes away our inside game," Odom said. "We're not swinging the ball enough. Everyone is not getting involved. So even when we do go on offensive runs and they come down, still they've got 10, 11 guys involved offensively. We just don't have that right now throughout the whole game."
2. Bench wars. The Suns bench was the overriding factor in Phoenix's win in Game 4, dominating the Lakers' first unit in the fourth quarter and finishing with a staggering 54 points overall. The Lakers don't have the Suns depth but they counter with the series' best reserve weapon: Odom. After submitting superior performances in Games 1 and 2, Odom struggled in Game 3 (10 points, 4-14 shooting), but found his rhythm in Game 4 (15 points, 6-13 shooting). PhilJackson suggested on Wednesday that he might extend the bench, using LukeWalton and Sasha Vujacic in more expanded roles. But the Lakers success is often tied to how Odom plays and a strong Game 5 would boost a Laker bench that has been totally outplayed the last two games.
3. Paging, Channing Frye. After stumbling through a nightmarish 1-20 stretch through the first three games of the series, Frye came alive in Game 4 with 14 points on 4-of-8 three-point shooting. Frye is an integral part of the Suns' offense and his ability to lure the Lakers' big men out on the perimeter opens up wide lanes for the Lakers' slashers to get into the paint. But if Frye is struggling with his shot, Phoenix's other options are Robin Lopez and Louis Amundson -- two traditional big men who don't present the same challenges as Frye offensively. Frye got a confidence booster with his Game 4 showing, and it's crucial he maintain that high in Game 5.
4. Lakers want more 'D.' "We lost the game because our defense sucked," Kobe Bryant said after Game 4. Indeed, with L.A. focused on finding ways to penetrate the Suns zone defense they neglected their own. Phoenix shot 48.8 percent in Game 4, more than four percentage points higher than what the Lakers allowed in the regular season. L.A.'s perimeter defenders aren't doing much more than waving at the Suns shooters at the three-point line, and given Bryant's scathing post-game comments, expect the Lakers to try to contest more shots in Game 5.
5. Who's doing the board work? One of the more inexplicable stats in Game 5 was the small-ball Suns racking up a 51-36 edge on the boards over a bigger, more physical Lakers team. Odom (10 rebounds) was the only Laker to crack double figures while Bynum and Gasol combined for 13.
"When a team that is definitely smaller than you dominates the glass with 15 rebounds of differential, I think that's the biggest thing of the game," said Gasol.
Credit the zone for taking away L.A.'s offensive rebounding (Phoenix had an 18-13 edge on the offensive board) and the Suns' rebounding mentality (no player had more than eight rebounds). But for L.A. to win, they need to establish themselves on the inside, beginning with the glass.