PHOENIX — After an exceptionally played Game 4 by the Phoenix Suns, all of the talk around Planet Orange has focused on the Suns’ zone defense and Channing Frye’s return from the dead.
But it wouldn’t be fair to pat the Suns on the back for their Game 4 performance without mentioning the bench backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa.
There is no way the Suns would have scored 54 bench points and tied the series at two without the speed, quickness and penetration of Dragic and LB.
On the Suns’ second offensive possession of the second quarter, Barbosa blew past a hedging Lamar Odom and finished a layup over the outstretched arms of Andrew Bynum.
The next time down the floor Dragic drove middle off a Lou Amundson screen and left a helping Bynum in the dust to ultimately finish strong at the hoop. Those two buckets set the tone for the Suns’ 41-point, second-quarter explosion.
“We try to play aggressive and we try to take advantage of situations,” head coach Alvin Gentry said after Wednesday’s practice. “You know with Bynum stepping out we tell our guys we’ve got to try to attack the basket.”
And attack the basket they did.
The very next play down the floor Barbosa drove middle and Odom was forced to help, which allowed LB to drop a bounce pass off to Amundson for a layup. Two plays later Amundson was again the beneficiary of a driving Suns guard, as this time Dragic drove away from Frye’s screen and all the way to the hoop before drawing two defenders and gift-wrapping an easy two-hand slam for Amundson.
“If we penetrate and get to the middle of the lane that’s good for us because we get so many open shots,” Dragic said, “and if they don’t have help from the corner or the weakside we have layups.”
The speed of Barbosa and Dragic was too much for Lakers bigs, which forced the weak side to help, resulting in the never-ending barrage of three-pointers from Jared Dudley, Frye and company.
“When (Barbosa and Dragic) are aggressive, I think it really opens up things for everybody else,” Amundson said. “It collapses the defense obviously and we got a lot of shooters, so we’re able to kick it out to the shooters or if they do rotate out there I’m inside, so you kind of have to pick your poison there.”
As the saying goes, speed kills, and the speed of the international guards did exactly that to LA.
“When we see a big guy on us, we are fast so we want to get advantage over that and use our speed as soon as possible so we can go to the basket,” Barbosa said. “If we don’t get to the basket we can assist someone. It’s a green light that Coach gives to us.”
With the Lakers unable to contain the dribble drive, the threes opened up. Dudley, Frye and even Barbosa all spaced the floor and, as Frye would say, “let it ride.” And when the Lakers started inching a little bit closer to the three-point line, the lanes once again opened up and the duo of speedsters took full advantage.
Dragic managed the game like a seasoned veteran and at times out-Steve Nashed Steve Nash (as Doug Collins put it), while embarrassing Derek Fisher along the way. His eight points and eight assists in 18 minutes really don’t tell the story of how effective he truly was.
He collected the game’s highest +/- (+ 18) and his ability to beat the Lakers off the dribble even without the pick and roll killed LA defensively. The once-timid sophomore guard was the catalyst in a bench performance that he described as “really something special.”
“I think he’s been watching Steve a lot,” Barbosa said of Dragic. “He’s doing such a great job for us right now. He’s carrying the bench and we’re happy to have him on our team.”
While the Slovenian lefty has been doing this sporadically throughout the playoffs, Barbosa’s 14 points in only 17 minutes was his best scoring output since April 3, making it his best game of the postseason. It isn’t that his game has tailed off, he’s just dealing with a decreased role due to the newfound talent on Phoenix’s bench.
When the Lakers and Suns met in the 2006 playoffs Barbosa started for a suspended Raja Bell in Game 6 and scored 22 points in 47 minutes to help Phoenix extend the series. He then went on to score a game-high 27 points in the series finale victory over the Lakers.
But because of his decreased court time, LB hasn’t had the chance to play the role of playoff hero this time around, which has been frustrating at times for the former Sixth Man of the Year.
“It’s hard because I like to aggressive and sometimes I want to be aggressive and I can’t because it’s a different situation for me,” Barbosa said before Game 4. “But I’ve just got to be patient and work really hard and it will come for me.”
The scoring came for him Tuesday night in the form of 6-for-8 shooting, 2-for-4 from three and a + 13, which was music to the ears of Gentry.
“LB’s playing really good. I think he’s back healthy and everything and he’s really playing well,” Gentry said. “The problem that he has is that J-Rich is probably playing All-Star basketball right now, so there’s not a whole lot of time for him, and that’s not his fault because in a regular situation I think he’d be playing 30 minutes a game.”
Although it’s been two completely different seasons for the once injury-riddled Barbosa and the blossoming Dragic, they came together to bolster an explosive bench performance in Game 4 that has the Suns riding high going into LA for tomorrow’s pivitol Game 5 matchup.