A series that looked like a Lakers’ breeze a week ago is all even at two apiece heading to Game 5 on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
The Suns reserves, considered an advantage entering the series but largely ineffective through three games, outscored their Lakers counterparts 54-20.
“The bench played fantastic,” the Suns’ Steve Nash said. “They were by far easily the difference tonight.”
Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 21 points. Nash, playing with a broken nose, made just 3-of-11 shots but had 15 points and eight assists.
But it was the backups who stole the show, making 20-of-32 shots, including 9-of-20 3s.
“They have a great bench,” Bryant said.
Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry kept all five reserves in the game for almost the first nine minutes of the final quarter, and they produced an 18-3 run, and the Lakers never recovered. When Nash re-entered with 3:05 to play, those subs— usually playing against the Los Angeles starters—had turned an 87-85 deficit into a 103-94 lead.
“We believe in those guys and they really believe in themselves,” Gentry said. “I thought they were much better defensively than they were offensively, and they were great offensively.”
Frye had made 1-of-21 shots in the series and missed 18 in a row when his second shot of the night, a 3-pointer, finally fell to the roar of the home crowd.
“I just set my feet and let it ride,” he said.
Jordan Farmar opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer, his only basket in five shots all night, to give the Lakers an 87-85 lead. Barbosa responded with a 22-footer to tie it, then Lou Amundson scored inside on a pass from Dudley before Frye sank a 3-pointer for a 92-87 advantage.
That was the first of three consecutive 3s for Phoenix, the second by Barbosa and third by Dudley to make it 98-89. The biggest lead was 103-90 on Dragic’s driving layup with 4:02 to play.
“We thought we could come in here and get a game, and unfortunately you know we weren’t up to the task,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “But we outscored them from the field I think both games, shot better than they did, did a lot of things very good and it still wasn’t enough to win the game. They beat us at the foul line both nights, and that’s the difference in the margin of the game.”
The Lakers had more field goals the Phoenix (45-41), but the Suns dominated at the foul line for the second game in a row, sinking 22 of 32 to Los Angeles’ Lakers’ 7 of 13.
Los Angeles was better against Phoenix’s zone defense, if not great.
“Our attention needs to be on the defensive end—period,” Bryant said. “That’s second-chance opportunities. Their bench came in and gave them a big boost in getting balls back and getting them extra possessions. We’ve got to cut that stuff out.”
After slugging out a 23-23 first quarter, the Suns erupted for a series-high 41-point second quarter, shooting 74 percent (17 for 23), 7 of 10 on 3-pointers to go up 64-55 at the half—and the backups led the way.
The reserves outscored the Lakers starters 21-11 to start the second period.
One of Bryant’s trademark scoring tears kept the Lakers in the game. After not taking a shot until the 2:09 mark of the first quarter, Bryant scored 15 in the second, making seven of his last nine shots, all outside jumpers. He was just getting started.
Bryant had 16 more in the third quarter, his 3-pointer with 2:20 to play finally catching the Suns at 81-all with 2:20 left. Pau Gasol made one of two free throws to put the Lakers ahead for the first time since the opening period, but Dragic made two free throws with 31 seconds left to put Phoenix ahead 85-84 entering the fourth.