PHOENIX -- To their credit, even at 0-2, the Suns' travel itinerary had always listed a trip back to L.A. for a potential Game 5. Thanks to Sunday’s career-playoff-high-tying 42 points from Amar’e Stoudemire, it is now a definite.
Led by the All-Star forward’s 14-of-22 night from the field en route to his biggest postseason offensive explosion since the 2005 playoffs, the Suns took Game 3 at US Airways Center, 118-109, to climb back into the Western Conference Finals, now down two games to one. The win marked Phoenix's fifth straight at home in the playoffs, their longest home streak since 1993.
“We came out with great intentions,” said STAT, who also posted game-highs with 11 rebounds and 14-of-18 free throws. “We definitely wanted to start off strong. It was a big game for us, a very important game for us. So we knew that coming into Game 3, we had to get this one.
“Coach Alvin (Gentry) told me before the game he was going to come to me and come to me a lot. And I was ready. I was totally ready. Being aggressive, I wanted to pretty much attack the bigs, and we got them in a little bit of foul trouble which helped us. We got to the free throw line. We were the aggressor right there, and it showed.”
At the line in the first half, the Suns limited the Lakers to just three free-throw attempts (0-for-3), while collecting 20 of their own (18-of-20). But it was Phoenix’s first real use of the zone defense in this series that helped limit a Lakers lineup that averaged 126 ppg in the first two games in L.A.
“We gave it a try and came up with some stops,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “And the first half I think they were 4-for-21 against it. So we just said we'd play it the whole second half. It's easier than trying to guard those guys on the inside, and it's also easier than trying to guard Kobe (Bryant). So tonight it worked, and we stuck with it.”
In addition to 10 team steals and winning the battle of the offensive boards for the first time in this series, a 15-2 run to end the second quarter gave the Suns a 54-47 lead heading into halftime. Phoenix improved to 8-0 in the postseason when leading or tied at the midway mark, and in the process, showed a tenacity that was lacking in Games 1 and 2.
“To me, that's got to be our calling card in this series,” said Steve Nash, who posted 15 points and a game-high 15 assists. “We can't make excuses about how big they are and the matchup problems and all that. Those are just excuses. We've got to fight tooth and nail for every inch and find a way to match them. Tonight the zone helped. It gave us an opportunity to find some separation there for stretches, but there’s got to be toughness.”
A team that usually lives or dies by the three-pointer, the Suns only connected on 5-of-20 as opposed to the Lakers’ 9-of-31. On his way to 19 points, Jason Richardson accounted for the majority of the damage from the outside with four longballs.
“We did a good job staying on the (outside) shooters and contesting shots,” said Kobe Bryant, who finished the night with a team-high 36 points for L.A. “And I think tonight their adjustment was to attack us, and that's what they did. They attacked us. They got to the basket, got to the free throw line and hurt us.”
Down by one minutes into the fourth quarter, an off-balance Jared Dudley lay-in gave Phoenix a lead they never relinquished, but it was Suns center Robin Lopez’s new playoff-career-high 20 points in just his third game back in the Suns lineup that helped make the difference.
“Lopez was a big factor, obviously,” said Pau Gasol (23 points). “He's a player that usually averages less than what he put up tonight, and it really hurts you. He's a long player, and he’s playing really well for them right now. We've got to make sure we contain him and make him take tougher shots and not get looks.”
The emotionally rejuvenated Suns now prepare for Tuesday’s Game 4 at US Airways Center before the series swings back to L.A later this week.
“We can never lose our confidence,” Stoudemire said. “We can never think we can't win. We played so great this season. We've done a phenomenal job this year so far, so we know how good we can be. It's just a matter of us bringing that focus and playing great on both ends.”
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