PHOENIX -- Standing outside the family room beneath the stands at U.S. Airways Center, one kid pulling on each pants leg, Amar'e Stoudemire peered through his black-rimmed glasses and digested questions about the next game -- about the future, and not the end.
Stoudemire's team needed him Sunday night, needed him the way that desperate teams need their superstars to play in games they have to win. The gifted ones do it more often than not, and Stoudemire delivered for the Suns in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
"I just wanted to dominate, to be honest with you," Stoudemire said after delivering 42 points and 11 rebounds in the Suns' 118-109 victory, cutting the Lakers' lead to 2-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday night in Phoenix. "Just come out and dominate."
Stoudemire did that with sheer aggression and determination, bulling his way to the basket for 18 free-throw attempts -- 14 of which he made. He did it all in the face of an onslaught of criticism in the local media -- criticism of how small he had played in the two games in Los Angeles and how big he had talked at the same time.
"He wanted the game bad," Grant Hill said. "You could tell the last few days in practice, in the locker room, in the weight room, the motivation was, 'We want to keep playing.' "
As much as he saved the Suns' season and put a jolt of intrigue into the NBA's postseason summer of sweeps, Stoudemire did much more than that. He averted, at least for a few more days, the kind of season-ending chaos that has engulfed some of his fellow stars this postseason -- those who have not been able to rescue their teams from playoff ruin and all the accompanying consequences.
Game 3: Suns 118, Lakers 109
Lakers-Suns series: L.A. up 2-1
"Come on, guys," coach Alvin Gentry was saying outside the locker room afterward. "We lose this game and we know this series is practically over."
Stoudemire understood. He has seen it happen to too many guys this spring -- too many stars falling short when their teams needed them, and too much turmoil to follow.
"Coach Alvin told me he was going to call my name and get me the ball," Stoudemire said. "I was ready to go."
Joe Johnson wasn't. His Atlanta team was swept by Orlando, and there was nothing he could do about it. Facing a 2-0 deficit in Game 3 at home -- same as Stoudemire -- Johnson didn't show up and the Hawks lost by 30. The result? Mike Woodson was let go, and Johnson's free agency looms as a franchise-shaping question mark in a few short weeks.
LeBron James faced a situation similar in Game 4 at home against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, trailing 2-1 in the series. LeBron had as many turnovers (seven) as field goals, the Cavs lost by 10, and they might never win another game with James in a Cleveland jersey.
Next up, Dwight Howard, who along with the Magic has been exposed, embarrassed and ridiculed in falling behind 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. Who knows what kind of backlash awaits Howard when the Celtics put him out of his misery and move on to the Finals. The postmortem already is under way, and it won't be kind to Howard.
|Through his aggressiveness, Stoudemire earns 18 trips to the charity stripe, sparks his team and perhaps enhances his stature. (Getty Images)|
"Oh, I'm sure he was conscious of that," Gentry said. "But I'll tell you with him, he said right from the start, 'Coach, I'm ready. Give me the ball and I'll find a way to get it in the basket for us.' I knew his whole mindset was going to be very positive and really aggressive."
So this, in part, is what Stoudemire avoided with a potentially series-changing performance Sunday night. Staring through his goggles at a possible 3-0 deficit, he made sure that he was not going down without doing something about it.
"I knew that Amar'e would play better than he did in L.A.," Gentry said. "He tried every way he could to get himself going. I felt he was really aggressive and he attacked the basket and that's why he got to the foul line. He's a competitor. Even if he had come out and not played well, I would've known for sure that he would've been aggressive in trying to."
Gentry said he didn't have any provocative speeches before the game; none was necessary. "We knew what was at stake," he said, and so, too, did Stoudemire. With bad press swirling all around him, Stoudemire's teammates couldn't help noticing his determination and focus in practice the past two days -- and mostly, his ability to block it all out, as he has been doing since the February trade deadline.
"I was going hard in practice," Stoudemire said. "Going hard and trying to get guys ramped up, with no fear, and just making sure they understood this was a big game for us and we've got to bring it. And we did that."
Did Stoudemire do enough to alter the course of the series and knock the Lakers out of their comfort zone? That's a stretch, one that the Suns aren't ready to make. They won without shooting the ball well, making only 5 of 20 from 3-point range -- and with their supposed secret weapon, Channing Frye, continuing to backfire. Frye was 0 for 7 from the field and 0 for 5 from 3-point range, making him 1 for 20 overall in the series with 17 consecutive misses. He's playing as though he has been traded back to the Knicks.
The Suns have other problems, too. They slowed the Lakers' potent offense by playing zone almost exclusively in the second half, holding L.A. below 50 percent from the field for the first time in the series. They did a better job clogging the paint and deflecting interior passes, too -- with Robin Lopez (20 points, 8 for 10 from the field) playing an important role in their improved inside play. They won a game in which Kobe Bryant was brilliant as a scorer (36 points) and as a facilitator (11 assists), and they kept Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom in foul trouble all night.
What happens next is a story for another day. What's important is that when the Suns needed Stoudemire -- and when he needed a game like this -- he delivered. He won't be trudging into a summer of uncertainty with his head hanging and the doubts swarming and his franchise crumbling around him. Not yet.
"All the frustration of the first two games ... just subsided," Steve Nash said.
And along with it went with the dread of facing the next one -- and the aftermath.