Although the Suns overcame 11 double-digit deficits in the regular season and three in the postseason to capture victories, Saturday night would not be one of those nights.
Despite slicing a 17-point fourth period lead to three with less than three minutes remaining in the game, the Suns were unable to get any closer, falling 111-103 to the visiting Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
“We played great and we were only two games short of getting to the Finals,” Suns forward Amar’e Stoudemire said. “They (the Lakers) have a great team and they have all bases covered; from the bench, to the starters, to Kobe.”
Phoenix came out of the gate on fire, shooting 53 from the floor and 50 percent from behind the arc in the first period. Unfortunately for the Suns, the Lakers shot 62 percent from the field and 67 percent from downtown in the first.
Setting the tone early, Steve Nash registered eight points and five assists, while Jason Richardson also poured in eight of his 13 points in the first quarter. Nonetheless, as the Suns headed into the second period, they trailed the Lakers 37-34.
Coming into Game 6 winners of six-straight playoff games and boasting a 9-2 record against Kobe Bryant in home playoff games, a Game 7 seemed imminent. But Bryant was determined, retorting with 13 of his game-high 37 points in the first half.
Against Phoenix’s reserves, the Lakers extended the lead to 12 at the half. L.A. really clamped down on the defensive end, limiting the high-scoring Suns to just 19 second-quarter points.
“It makes it hard when you’re down like that,” Suns co-captain Grant Hill said. “We fought and got back into the game but they have experience of being in these types of games before and they’re pretty good.”
The third period was much of the same for the Lakers, who continued to control the pace of the game. L.A. forward Ron Artest, who had only reached 20 points in one previous playoff game this season, poured in 24 points through three quarters Saturday.
Artest, who had only scored 20 or more four times all season, would finish with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor and 4-of-7 shooting from three-point land. Not only was his 25 points a playoff best this season, but it was higher than any amount he scored during the regular season.
“As I said, you have to make a decision when Kobe is on the floor,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “Sometimes you have to leave guys open. Once again, you have to give Ron credit. He did a great job, stepped up and made shots.”
However, like Phoenix’s reserves have done all season, they scrapped and clawed the Suns back into the contest. Trailing by 17 with 11:21 left in the fourth period, backup point guard Goran Dragic nailed a jumper to cut the lead to 15. After draining the shot, Dragic was flagrantly fouled by L.A.’s Sasha Vujacic.
The foul awakened the sell-out crowd and the Suns, who went on a 14-4 run after the foul, trimming the lead to five with 6:09 remaining. Dragic would ignite the run, driving by Vujacic two consecutive times for layups.
The Suns’ subs were 10-of-19 from the floor in the firth three quarters, including 4-of-8 from three-point range. On the night, the Suns’ bench shot 15-of-29 from the floor and outscored the Lakers’ bench 36-19.
Dragic concluded with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while Channing Frye shot 5-of-7 from the floor to total 12 points, 13 rebounds and one block.
Amar’e Stoudemire also came alive in the second half, scoring 18 of his team-high 27 points in the last two periods. STAT finished 7-of-20 from the floor, but was 13-of-15 from the line.
“This team has a great heart,” Dragic said. “We came back from 18 points and had a chance to win. We have a lot of good players we can make shots and we can make plays, but they’re so long that they have more second possessions than we do.”
The Suns, who tallied 19 more points than the Lakers in the fourth quarters of the last three contests, would outscore them by nine Saturday. But it wouldn’t be enough.
Bryant, would score 11 in the final period, drilled two impressive daggers in the final two minutes. He finished 12-of-25 from the field, 3-of-8 from downtown and 10-of-11 from the line on the night.
“There's an intense game going on and you almost have to laugh at what he does,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “I mean, I thought we played great defense on him. He just made tough shot after tough shot.”
Game 6 seemed to mirror Game 5 in that the Suns were able to mount an incredible comeback, only to come up short in the waning seconds.
“In Game 5 we were two points away, one stop away from going into overtime,” Suns forward Jared Dudley noted. “Tonight we’re down by three at one point in the fourth quarter - but an offensive foul here and then a missed shot - those are winning basketball plays that separates champions like the Lakers from Western Conference Finalists like us.”
Steve Nash, who collected 21 points and nine assists on the night, said that he thought the Lakers were the superior team coming into the series, but is now left unsure.
“Going into the series, I thought they were the better team, but I thought we had a chance to do something special,” the 2009-10 All-Star said. “I think the last four or five days, I've been questioning who the better team is, and have had a lot of belief that maybe we were, or at least maybe we could find a way to win the series regardless. I think that's a tribute to my teammates, their attitude and commitment.”
As for what tweaking with the team needs to occur in the offseason, that will be left to be debated. However, despite being eliminated 4-2 by the defending champions, there was an abundance of optimism in the locker room.
“We played great, were only two games short of getting to the Finals,” Stoudemire said. “We have the right pedigree and mind frame. (If we keep the team intact) we’re definitely contenders.”
The Lakers will face the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Game 1 is on Thursday.
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