PHOENIX -- After the first official timeout of the fourth quarter, with the game and the series hanging in the balance for the gang that supposedly couldn't shoot straight, the Suns' starters found themselves in a surprisingly comfortable place.
On the bench.
"Coach stuck with us a little bit longer than usual," reserve Jared Dudley said, "and let the starters just chill over there on the bench and watch the show."
With Phoenix leading 89-87 with 8:50 left in the game -- 8:50 left in the season, basically, for the Suns -- coach Alvin Gentry did something I can't imagine any other coach in the NBA doing. As the Lakers' glamour lineup was itching to get back on the floor, Gentry didn't flinch. He was sticking with his bench.
With three starters on their way to 35-plus minutes, Phil Jackson was trying to buy another minute or two or rest for Ron Artest, Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol. Before he knew it, there was an unprecedented weather event in central Phoenix. It was raining, and by that I mean 3-pointers.
Boom, went Channing Frye as the shot-clock buzzer went off, drilling his fourth 3-pointer of the night after going 1 for 14 from beyond the arc in the first three games. Boom, went Leandro Barbosa from the corner, making it a six-point lead, 95-89. Boom, went Dudley from the corner, making use of what teammate Jason Richardson suggested must be a 90-hour energy drink he consumes before practices and games.
Just like that, it was 98-89 Suns with 6:47 left, and out came Artest, Fisher and Gasol to join Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom for the stretch run. And yet Gentry kept the Suns' starters on the bench. And it was the Suns' bench that outplayed the defending champions' most lethal lineup in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, running the Lakers ragged for a 115-106 victory in Game 4 and sending the series back to Los Angeles tied at 2.
The Lakers are 3-0 in Game 5s at home with playoff series tied at 2 in the past two postseasons, beating Houston and Denver last season and Oklahoma City this season. But that didn't quell Bryant's annoyance with the Lakers' defensive effort in a game that could've sucked the life out of the Suns and sent L.A. on its merry way toward what many -- myself included -- thought would be a fairly routine march toward a Finals rematch with the Celtics.
Game 4: Suns 115, Lakers 106
Lakers-Suns series: Tied at 2
"Can't rely on that," Bryant said of the Lakers' success in these situations. "This is not last year. Just can't rely on that. We have to play with a sense of urgency and understand this team can beat us. And we've got to be ready to play."
As the series shifts back to Staples Center, where the Lakers took a 2-0 lead that evaporated in the desert, the complexion has changed significantly. After making only 20 3-pointers and getting 76 points combined from their bench in the first three games, the Suns made 11 of 30 from beyond the arc and got 54 points from their bench in Game 4.
"We were just waiting for them to explode," Richardson said. "We knew one game they were going to win the game for us. And tonight was the night."
Not only did Dudley, Barbosa, Frye, Goran Dragic and Louis Amundson win the game, they protected the Suns' nine-point lead during a crucial 3½-minute stretch against the Lakers' starters (plus Odom). They did it with everything on the line for a team that has been ridiculed as too soft, too small, too errant from the field. All that changed in Game 4. Suffice it to say, the Suns have Bryant's attention.
"Our attention needs to be on the defensive end, period," said Bryant, grim-faced despite scoring 38 points -- carrying the Lakers in the second quarter but running out of gas with only seven in the fourth. "That's second-chance opportunities ... extra possessions. We've got to cut that stuff out."
The Suns are back in the series because of their bench, but also because Gentry's decision to play what amounted to a matchup-zone defense the entire game stymied the Lakers into forgetting who they are and how they attack. Bryant said the strategy spilled over to the defensive end, taking the focus off the area the Lakers should be most concerned about.
"Coming up here, we lost a sense of urgency defensively," Bryant said. "I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone. And 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."
On their home floor, the Suns were able to flip the script that says a team playing a quick-strike, 3-point shooting style can't advance this deep in the postseason. Gentry talked about how his team's chemistry -- with starters urging him to keep the reserves in when they're rolling -- gives them "a college team mentality." He wasn't joking. The Suns won a playoff game playing a 2-3 zone for almost 48 minutes. What's next, the 1-3-1 trap?
|Jared Dudley's three treys off the bench ignite the Suns and frustrate Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. (Getty Images)|
"We can't worry about that," said Frye, who finally got to breathe after spending two very tense days fielding calls from friends, fellow players, former teammates and former coaches about his shooting. He couldn't even go to the convenience store to get a sub without random yokels giving him shooting tips.
"I was like, 'Yo, thanks, guy. I'm getting something from Circle K,' " Frye said. " 'But I appreciate it.' ... Hey, it's my job to make shots and I wasn't doing it. So I said, 'Just go out, have fun and shoot the ball.' Why not just go out there and let it ride?"
Frye missed his first 3-point attempt, but the basket started looking a little bigger when he got going with two straight late in the second quarter. Then, he helped put the game away as part of the back-to-back-to-back 3-point barrage in the fourth.
"Once you see the ball go in, you kind of feed off it," Dudley said. " ... Like, 'Hey, when's it my turn?' And how they were playing defense is, they wanted to take away Amar'e [Stoudemire] early on. So we just spotted up at the 3-point line, and it was like target practice."
The confidence among the Suns' reserves -- and the starters' confidence in them -- comes straight from the top. From the first day of training camp, Gentry committed to a 10-man rotation and told the team, "There's going to be times where our starters have to sit over there when our bench is going good. And you may not get back in, or you may get in with a few minutes left in the game. But we have to let these guys have an opportunity to see if they can finish up and see how they play. And when they're going good, I don't think I should take them out."
Some coaches let the role players languish on the bench until a crisis strikes, and then call their number when they're not prepared. Not Gentry, who has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, Mike D'Antoni, who was -- and still is -- famous for his tight, eight-man rotations.
"Alvin is smart," Hill said. "He played them all season. It's not like he played them when he needed them. He played those guys, developed those guys, gave them confidence regardless of whether they were playing well or not. He kept them out there all season. They've had games like this before."
And so as those precious fourth-quarter minutes ticked away, Hill said, "It was like the starters didn't want to come back in. We didn't want to mess it up."
"Let 'em go," Richardson said. "There were no worries like they were going to lose the game. They had the lead the whole game and they basically finished the game off for us. My thought was, 'Let 'em finish the game off,' but we saw they did get tired because they'd played the whole fourth quarter."
So this is where we are in the Western Conference finals, in the midst of a stylistic shift that was decidedly in the Suns' favor on their home court. This is the latest challenge for the Lakers, after solving the run-and-gun Thunder after the first-round series went back to L.A. tied at 2.
At their practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon, it will not be a walk in the park. It will be a track meet of preparation for an opponent that suddenly has a puncher's chance.