Coming into Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, the Suns were 5-0 in the postseason when Jason Richardson scored 20 or more points. Unfortunately for Phoenix, that statistic will now be talked about in the past tense.
Despite Richardson’s 27 points, 10-of-17 shooting from the floor and 3-of-7 shooting from downtown, the visiting Suns dropped a 124-112 decision to the Lakers on Wednesday. After winning six-straight games coming into the Conference Finals, the Suns find themselves down 2-0 to the defending champions.
“I thought we played well offensively, but every time we tried to make an adjustment to slow them down, they go somewhere else,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “You have to pick your poison. As I said, we just have to take a look at the tape tonight and maybe we'll decide that we'll let Kobe get 80 and try to guard the other guys.”
One of the cries from Suns camp after Game 1 was to come out aggressive and put the Lakers on their heels to begin Game 2. But despite their best efforts and strategy, the Suns permitted another 30-point first quarter from the Lakers, falling behind 34-26 as they headed into the second period.
“We haven't found a way to slow them down yet,” Suns guard Steve Nash said. “And I think if we're going to beat them, we've got to find a way to slow them down, not let them shoot in the 50s every game, and not give up 120 something points every night. When they score 120 something, it is asking the offense to score way too much.”
The Suns bench, like they have all season, provided a nice lift in the second quarter, uncorking a 15-6 run to bring the team back within striking distance. Finding his range after a tough Game 1 performance, Jared Dudley led the attack by connecting on 3-of-3 from behind the arc to total nine of his 15 points in the period.
Trailing by nine at the half, Richardson came out determined in the second half, going on a personal 7-2 run, forcing the Lakers to call a timeout. In the period, Richardson poured in 12 points, shot 5-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from three-point land to bring the contest to tie entering the fourth.
“I really didn’t want to lose so I went out there attacking, attacking,” Richardson said. “I could tell I had to go out there and take over a little bit.”
However, the Suns would never pull ahead as the Lakers went on a 16-5 run to begin the period and crush all hopes of a Suns’ comeback. Although the Suns head home for a Game 3 trailing in the series, they have to be encouraged by the play of Richardson.
The X-factor for the Suns all season, Richardson came into the series leading the Suns in scoring during the playoffs and were 31-4 on the season when he scored 20 or more points. But it has been a different story for J-Rich against the Lakers all season.
Richardson only scored five points against the Lakers in their first meeting this season, followed by 10 four and 16 points in their next three respective encounters. In those four games, the two-time dunk champ only shot 13-for-42.
However, J-Rich showed signs of life in Game 1, scoring 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the floor and 3-of-6 shooting frown downtown. Much of the reason for Richardson’s ability to shake loose offensively can be attributed to a strategic adjustment made by the coaching staff on the defensive end.
During the regular season, Richardson inherited the chore of checking Kobe Bryant on defense, which prohibited him from completely exerting himself on the offensive end. So while he averaged 15.7 points on the season and a team-leading 21.9 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the 6-6 shooting guard only averaged 8.8 points a game against the Lakers during the regular season.
Since being relieved of his defensive responsibilities on Bryant, one can see the spark the former Michigan St. Spartan can provide offensively.
“I’ve been confident,” Richardson declared. “Last game it was just tough to get shots up. My confidence is the same as it’s been this whole playoff series so I’m going to go out there from the start and be aggressive.”
Much like he did in the series against Portland, when Richardson was allowed to move off of Andre Miller and focus more on the attack, he responded. Grant Hill was also able to aid Richardson on the offensive end, shooting 10-of-17 from the floor to total 23 points.
The small-ball lineup that featured Hill at power forward was the lineup that allowed the Suns to rally in the third period. Hill was able to rack up 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the quarter.
Unfortunately for the Suns, the run would end there as the Suns were outscored 34-22 in the fourth period. For the game, the Suns allowed the Lakers, who shot 46 percent on the season, to shoot 58 percent in Game 2.
“You exert so much energy to get back into the game,” Hill said. “You fight to get it even, but they have a nice cushion. We had to fight like that in the first quarter to prevent them from getting 30 and we had to fight like that in the second quarter to prevent them from getting 30 points.
“And then we’re down 10 going into the third quarter. It’s like swimming upstream.”
Through the first two games in the series, the Lakers’ 58 percent shooting marks the second-best percentage in Conference Finals history. Lakers forward Ron Artest, who shot just 41 percent from the field this season and only 38 percent in the first two rounds, performed his best Steve Kerr-like impersonation by draining 6-of-9 shots from the floor and 3-of-6 from downtown to notch 18 points in Game 2.
“The last two games he’s been knocking them down so we have to think twice about leaving him,” Richardson said.
Kobe Bryant scored 21, but dished out a playoff-career-high 13 assists to lead the Lakers’ attack. Pau Gasol led all scorers with 29 points, while also compiling nine boards and two swats.
For all the talk of the Suns’ bench, the Lakers’ bench has been pivotal, outscoring the Suns’ reserves 36-26. L.A.’s Lamar Odom continued to build off of a superb Game 1 by tallying 17 points, 11 rebounds and three steals in Game 2.
“We have to figure it out,” Hill said. “I do think there was some good things we showed and we got to look at that and correct those things we weren’t doing.
“I think we tried some new stuff and we tried some different things but I think Alvin scrapped that there at halftime,” Hill continued. “We tried to get back to what we do. I think we’ll go back to what we do all season because there has been some indecision.”
Steve Nash added 11 points and 15 rebounds, while Amar’e Stoudemire notched 18 points, six rebounds and two blocks for the Suns. However, the duo also combined for 10 turnovers, which contributed to the Suns’ first back-to-back losses since January 25-26.
History doesn’t appear to be on Phoenix’s side, considering Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson is 35-0 when his teams lead the series 2-0. But we’ll see if history can be altered in Game 3 on Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
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