PHOENIX — In many respects Friday’s game against the Lakers felt like a playoff game. Heck, that notion was even written on the whiteboard in the Suns’ locker room before the game.
With Los Angeles being in town on a Friday night, the fans were jacked up during pregame introductions and the Suns started the game off with one of their better energy performances in an atmosphere that felt more like May than March.
But when the Lakers clamped down on defense and found good shots against the Suns’ zone, Phoenix could not hang with the defending champs, falling 102-96 to their Pacific Division nemesis.
“We played hard and did a good job, just couldn’t quite get over the hump,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry.
With the loss, the Suns fell a full game behind Oklahoma City for fifth in the West (and two games behind in the loss column). They are only a half-game ahead of No. 7 San Antonio (and one back in the loss column) and just one game up on No. 8 Portland. So much for winning 14 of 19.
This game illustrates why the Suns would be better off falling into the No. 6 or (at worst) No. 7 slot. Although having Channing Frye certainly would help, Phoenix just doesn’t have the horses to guard the Lakers’ bigs down low one on one. Combine that with the fact that nobody on the planet can guard Kobe Bryant and you have a problem.
The Suns counteracted that issue by throwing a zone defense at Los Angeles for extended periods of the game, and it worked for a stretch as Phoenix built up an eight-point lead in the second quarter, with much of the damage being done with Kobe on the bench with two early fouls.
But the Lakers eventually figured it out, and with the Suns focusing on Los Angeles’ bigs and Kobe, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher were left as open as you’ll ever see an NBA player for threes. You could say making those guys hit perimeter shots is a good strategy against the Lakers, but in this game they hit just enough for Los Angeles to win (three apiece).
All five Lakers starters thus managed to score at least 15 points, with Artest and Fisher benefitting from the lack of attention.
Los Angeles ended the first half on a 20-6 run as Phoenix’s engine stalled. After playing crisp basketball in the first quarter, the Suns just didn’t have it in the latter parts of the second.
“We just lost our flow and rhythm,” Steve Nash said. “We had a really nice rhythm going and we just kind of got stagnant. We missed some shots, but I thought more than that we lost our tempo and our rhythm, and we couldn’t get it back until the second half.”
The Suns trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half before battling back to take an 82-81 lead early in the fourth on a Lou Amundson alley-oop dunk that capped a 20-6 run for the Suns. However, the Lakers answered with a 12-1 run to put them up 10 with five minutes left.
The Suns still had their chances, as Nash just missed a three that felt good leaving his hand with a minute left that would have cut the lead to one and then Grant Hill could not handle a Nash pass 24 seconds later with the lead still at four.
“We had a chance to win the game and we just didn’t make the plays when they counted,” Nash said.
You certainly cannot blame Lou Amundson for that. In fact, the game never would have been this close if Lou hadn’t hustled all over the floor during 28 of the final 36 minutes. After not getting any burn in the first quarter, Gentry couldn’t take Lou out. Amundson finished with just his second double-double of the season and third of his career with 11 points, 10 boards and four blocks, including two on the same possession against Gasol and Bynum.
He dove into the stands for a loose ball, dunked on people and overall did everything he could to get under the skin of the bigger Lakers.
“I was just going out there and really trying to give us a spark,” Amundson said. “We started the second half a little lackluster, and we were kind of lacking energy in the first few minutes, so I was just trying to come in, give us a spark, give some energy and make some plays.”
Added Nash, “It was big tonight for us in keeping us in the game and giving us energy.”
The game started as the Amare Stoudemire Show, as Phoenix got a monster 17-point, eight-rebound first quarter from Stoudemire. STAT slowed after that insane opening 12 minutes, but he still recorded game highs in points (29) and rebounds (16). Amare took the ball right at the longest front line in the league, mighty impressive considering his 2-for-15 performance in a game earlier this season in Los Angeles.
“I was ready from the start, from the jump ball, even before the jump ball,” Stoudemire said. “I was ready when I drove in.”
But it was not enough.
This game will not decide the Suns’ playoff fate, and nobody can blame them for losing to the defending champs while perhaps being a bit rusty from their six-day layoff. It certainly didn’t help having Channing Frye suspended, especially when Robin Lopez picked up two early fouls and then failed to grab a single rebound in 18 minutes.
Still, a second win against the Lakers would have done wonders for this team’s confidence, although Nash doesn’t plan on putting too much stock in the end result.
“We had our chances, and we lost the game,” Nash said. “I don’t put too much more on it than that.”
- Gentry was ejected with 5:06 remaining when he felt a hard Pau Gasol foul on Amundson should have been ruled a flagrant. Gentry raced to midcourt to argue, quickly drawing the ejection. After the game he was in no mood to speak about the incident. “I will not talk about it,” he said. “Let the NBA look at it and see and see what they think. They’ve got all the answers, go let them decide.”
- Nash said his back felt “pretty good,” although he was a little sore from working out so much this week. It wasn’t stiff, and after really struggling with the health of his back and lower abdomen Saturday against Indiana, he said he didn’t feel that pain at all in this game. “My back felt a lot better, and hopefully I can get some rejuvenation in my legs, my back will continue to feel good, and I can finish strong,” Nash said.
- I know, this always happens when the Lakers are in town, but there were a ton of visiting fans in US Airways Center tonight. At one point I was looking down at the Daily Dime Live chat not paying attention to Derek Fisher’s free throws and thought that he missed it because the crowd cheered. Turned out the crowd was cheering a make. The “MVP” chants for Kobe at the end of the game did not exactly appeal to me either.
- Jarron Collins had played just three minutes since January, but he came in and gave his team 12 solid minutes, grabbing three rebounds, dishing a pair of assists and taking two charges. “He’s a real pro,” Gentry said. “There’s a reason that he stays in the league, there’s a reason that he’ll be in the league.”
- J-Rich on Amundson: ““It’s very important, we need that every night from him. He came in blocking shots, getting offensive rebounds. He kept us in the game with his energy. He got the crowd into it, and that’s what we need from him every night.”
- The Suns lost to a Pacific Division rival for the first time in 15 games. The Lakers were the last division rival to win in USAC, with that victory coming back on Nov. 20, 2008. … Phoenix finished 7-1 against its division at home for the second year in a row. … The Suns were held under 100 points for just the third time in 33 home games. … Richardson called this probably the Suns’ best defensive effort of the season. … Phoenix shot only 40.8 percent in its three losses to Los Angeles this season. … The Suns lost their first game in which they won the rebounding battle since Jan. 22 against Chicago.