Stoudemire Responds with 42 in Suns Win
The sun sets but the sun also rises. The Phoenix Suns made it a series with a 118-109 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at US Airways Center to trim their deficit to 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals with the all important Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday night. The Suns used a 42-20 free throw advantage in their favor to avoid going down 3-0 to the Lakers, whom to this point, seemed in complete control of the series and their destiny at a chance to repeat as NBA Champions. Amar’e Stoudemire (42 points on 14-22, 14-18 free throws, 11 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) led the way for the Suns while Jason Richardson (19 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal) and Steve Nash (17 points, 15 assists, 2 rebounds) gave just enough support. But it was center Robin Lopez (20 points on 8-10, 3 rebounds, 1 steal) who provided the unexpected lift, having his way in the paint as the Lakers interior defense was non-existent against the second-year pro.
Kobe Bryant (36 points on 13-24, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) and Pau Gasol (23 points on 11-14, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot) brought their games but missing were the solid support they had gotten in the previous two meetings from their supporting cast. The Suns went to the zone defense early and the Lakers were content with launching 3-pointers. But tonight they didn’t have the same accuracy or patience on offense as they managed only 9-32 attempts. Andrew Bynum (2 points, 2 rebounds, 4 fouls in 8-minutes) was a non-factor, the result of the Suns attacking early and often, forcing the young center to the bench in favor of Lamar Odom. Odom’s luck apparently ran out tonight as he managed only 10 points on 4-14, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots while fouling out of the contest with 3:15 to play and the Lakers trailing 102-96. Derek Fisher (18 points on 6-11, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal) and Ron Artest (12 points on 4-13, 6 rebounds) tried to keep pace with the hot Suns, but Stoudemire willed his team to victory with a relentless attack in the paint. He continually drove the ball and when he wasn’t scoring, was making repeated trips to the free throw line.
The Suns bench still had trouble finding the range, but this game was all about the starters. With both teams going with their first units almost exclusively, it was the Suns who controlled the tempo and the game plan. Shutting down the paint where they’ve been exploited in the first two games, Phoenix made a concerted effort to plug the middle and force the Lakers into an outside shooting contest. And as the Lakers got 3-point shot happy, the Suns used their superior perimeter game to stifle the Lakers. After a familiar 1st quarter which saw the Lakers grab a 32-26 lead, the Suns used a 25-15 second period to take command of the game and a 54-47 halftime advantage. The Lakers exploded for 37-points in the 3rd quarter but still gave up 32-points to the Suns. The 4th quarter was nip and tuck with the Lakers eventually taking the lead at 90-89 with 8:47 to play. But it was all Suns from there as Phoenix rode a 11-2 run for a 100-92 advantage and their first win of the series.
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Sometimes good things result from a loss. I for one, expected a loss in Phoenix. Even with the Lakers controlling the Suns easily in Game 2, their bad habits were making an unexpected return. Instead of turning up the defense, the Lakers chose to try to outscore the Suns. Perhaps this loss will help them realize that they can’t just show up and expect to win, even against the defensively-challenged Suns. As Boston coasts through Orlando with relative ease, the best thing that could happen to the Lakers would to be a loss to the Suns. It’s as if this team needs a constant reminder as to what got them here. This defeat could prove to be the perfect medicine for these short-term memory Lakers. 32 3-point attempts is not Lakers basketball, heck, it’s not even Orlando Magic basketball. Yet here they were, jacking up threes from all angles while the Suns were content to allow them as long as they didn’t get pummeled inside.
Picking your poison can sometimes backfire on you. The Suns knew that their only chance at winning was to hope that the Lakers would cool from outside. Not only did they cool, they went off the deep end, forcing up long-distance shots at an incredible pace. Phoenix deviated from their game plan for the first time in the series, attacking the rim and getting to the line. At one point, the Suns had attempted 15-free throws while the Lakers had yet to get to the line. Playoff basketball is all about making free throws and playing defense. Tonight, the Lakers witnessed firsthand in just about a month, what can happen when you go away from your strengths. This win does nothing for the Suns except extend the series by 1-game. But it may do wonders for the Lakers in the long run if they learn from this loss. And if they don’t, they have no one to blame but themselves. I said it before and I’ll say it again, Lakers in five.