Taking a page out of the Lakers' success in this Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns use their own big men to hand the Lakers their first loss in 9 post-season games to trail the series 2-1 against the defending champs. Amar'e Stoudamire had the biggest night for both teams with 42 points and 11 rebounds to lead both teams, and the planets aligned for Robin Lopez who surprised everyone with 20 points.
For the first time in this series, Stoudamire made good on his promise of bringing forth a better effort for a game. He was on fire from the get-go and seemed like everything he threw up found its way through the bottom of the net, including a double-clutch banker between the contesting Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant in the 3rd quarter. But the Lakers didn't force him to drive to his left enough and did a poor job at sending a second defender to step in front as he drove for the hoop to turn him to a playmaker instead.
Lopez simply did a good job at picking his shots and being an active body around the rim for Phoenix. Still, a little bit of better effort from the Laker bigs on the boards and on defense plus more help from other guys could have made a huge difference in the outcome of the game.
The Lakers were led by Kobe and Pau with Bryant continuing to light it up in the playoffs with another 30+ scoring night with 36 points and another team-high 11 assists for his second straight double-digit outing in that category. Kobe started the game making 6 of his first 7 shots and looked like he was poise for at least another 40-point game. . Gasol got second string with 23 points and 9 rebounds, but he only took 14 shots because Phoenix forced him to look for his teammates a little bit and his teammates didn't do much of the same for him.
After getting his way the first two games, Lamar Odom was caught laying an egg on this one. He had 19 points and 19 boards in Game 1 and tallied 17 points and 11 rebounds in Game 2 with a combined 16-of-25 for a sizzling 64% shooting. But Lamar shot 28.5% (4-14) for just 10 points and only managed 6 rebounds before fouling out of the game late in the 4th quarter. He wasn't aggressive for much of the night and settled for 3-pointers with zero success. Even absolute gimmes under the rim weren't kind enough for him. But Odom wasn't the only starter that needed to step it up a notch.
Ron Artest may have had 12 points, but he needed 13 shots to get it because he took some ill-advised shots and didn't see much of his 3-point attempts sink for him compared to Game 2. But Phoenix's gamble of leaving him open around the perimeter paid off for them for Game 3. Expect a wiser Artest who will look to attack the rim more to score or find wide-open teammates on Tuesday.
Andrew Bynum only played 7 minutes making his only shot attempt for 2 points and grabbing 2 rebounds. It's hard to tell if his limited ability as this series goes on is the product of his injured knee or if Phil Jackson is simply saving him for the NBA Finals. But Jackson had approached Andrew prior to Game 3 if he wanted to sit it out but Bynum respectfully declined the offer. That's noble and tough of Andrew. But if he decides to play rather than rest, then he has to go out there and play. He got himself in foul trouble the entire game and pretty much robbed him of more playing time and being a better presence in the paint for the Lakers.
Then again, the Laker bigs all got themselves in early foul trouble which hindered their abilty to play aggressively at both ends of the floor. Credit the Suns for that who did an excellent job at forcing the Lakers to move their feet on defense and to go away from their post-players with their zone defense.
There's just something about the zone D that always seems to cause the Lakers to rear their ugly heads. They take too many early shots, too many jumpshots, too much time passing the ball around instead of getting the ball inside or attacking the rim for some reason when they face this defense. Most people expected the Suns to utilize this defense, yet the Lakers didn't look like they anticipated it all. But they were able to get Phoenix to go man-defense in the second half because Alvin Gentry stuck with it just a little too long.
Interestingly enough, the Lakers still shot 48.3% as a team despite doing a poor job against the zone defense for much of the night. They also converted more 3-pointers than the Sun with 9 compared to 5 for Phoenix, but the Lakers jacked up 32 three-point attempts which happened to be their new franchise record in the playoffs. They are 0-4 when they take at least 30 of those shots.
The Suns may have won Game 3, but they're far from being "back" in this series. There are a few things to consider for Phoenix: Stoudamire may have had his way on offense with 40 points on top of their zone defense bothering the Lakers enough and forcing 17 turnovers from the Lakers to only 7 for them, but they needed every bit of Lopez's contribution to beat the defending champs. Without him, the Lakers take Game 3. Period. The bench for the Lakers may have had their worst production of the series, but they still outscored the Suns' bench 18-15.
The Lakers will just have to move past this loss and retool with adjustments and refocus as a team for Game 4 on Tuesday. With a lot of things not working for them in Game 3, they still managed some solid numbers and, above all, were never really out of the game until late 4th quarter turnovers and defensive breakdowns sealed the deal for Phoenix.
The Lakers are still in the driver's seat in this series and will take a lot more for the Suns to get Phoenix anywhere in the front seat. But the Suns just did their job of keeping themselves alive...for now.
Game 3 highlights:
Lakers post-game interviews: