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Art Garcia

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Robin Lopez and the Suns turned up the intensity in Game 3.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

With series in doubt, Suns toughened up at the right time


Posted May 25 2010 7:28AM - Updated May 25 2010 4:19PM

PHOENIX -- Robin Lopez claims there wasn't an extra fire lit during an elbow-to-forehead episode with Derek Fisher in the third quarter of Monday's Game 3. The resulting double-technicals, and the L.A. point guard's willingness to take on the 7-foot Lopez, weren't part of some elaborate Suns' plan to get under the skin of the champs.

Lopez said he just lost his balance.

Really?

"It's a contact sport," Lopez said dryly. "That's going to happen. We came body to body and we were just trying to avoid each other."

Protests aside, Lopez likely wasn't trying to steer clear of Fisher. There's no debate that Phoenix, as a whole, needed to get up close and personal to close the gap in the Western Conference finals. The Lakers still lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 going into Game 4 Tuesday night at US Airways Center.

The Suns left Los Angeles after the first two games manhandled, especially inside. That was hardly surprising considering the trees the Lakers can plant in the paint. Still, the lack of resistance from Phoenix only amplified the talent gap.

So while the Suns weren't going to grow any taller after falling behind 2-0, they knew they had to play harder and with more emotion.

"That's gotta be our calling card in this series," said Steve Nash, who added a broken nose to a list of playoff maladies. "We can't make excuses about how big they are and the matchup problems and all that stuff. Those are just excuses. If they beat us, they beat us.

"But we've got to fight tooth-and-nail for every inch and match them, find a way to match them."

The Suns attacked the basket early with Amar'e Stoudemire working off the pick-and-roll with Nash. But it was hardly limited to just Stoudemire, whose 42 points matched his career playoff high. Lopez added 20, taking advantage of the extra attention given Stoudemire.

Their assertiveness put the Lakers, namely Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, in early foul trouble. Those two, along with Pau Gasol, give Los Angeles its size advantage. Taking two out of the equation is an equalizer.

"That's exactly what we wanted," Lopez said, "trying to get people in foul trouble."

The Suns enjoyed a 21-point edge at the foul line, suggesting the Lakers were a step slow and out of position most of Game 3. How much was that Phoenix playing with something extra?

"I don't think it's as easy as saying because they came home then all of the sudden they're playing harder and more aggressive," Fisher said. "I'm sure they came to L.A. with the same gameplan.

"I think they really stepped up their game and made an effort to get the ball to Amar'e, and their defense caused us some problems because we weren't able to get the ball into Pau on a consistent basis."

The Lakers give off the vibe of being above the fray more often than not. The champs don't resort to mix-it-up tactics because they don't need to. Nash laid out the talent disparity.

"If we play the game like a normal game or play it on paper, they'll probably beat us most nights," he admitted.

So the Suns have to close the divide other ways. One way, as Nash also pointed out, is to play like an "underdog" and "with a chip on our shoulder." Another could be use that chip and stick it in the Lakers' craw.

"You've got to be physical with them to a certain extent, but we've still got to play our way," said Jared Dudley, a noted pest. "We're not a physical Boston Celtics team. We have to be aggressive, which we were to get to the free-throw line more at home. We just have to be a little rugged at times."

Whether the Suns can consistently irritate the Lakers and break their rhythm is iffy. Kobe Bryant doesn't lose his cool. And Fisher doesn't panic.

"There may be moments because it's the Western Conference finals and emotions are high where things might get a little chippy or you might go back-and-forth with the referee or an opposing player," he said, "but still at the end of the day the focus and the composure and the poise, at least for myself and Kobe and coaches and most of our guys, is always there. But to expect that we're just going to be these vanilla guys that are just going to out and play and never get each other's skins ..."

Fisher said the Lakers will fight back when provoked. The question is how much.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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