PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ bench has been building leads and making comebacks all season.
But this was the Western Conference Finals, a time when the stars usually shine, not an occasion that usually ends with an entire bench unit being interviewed by Craig Sager.
On a night that appeared to be the Suns’ signature three-point shooting game when the Suns went on a 41-point rampage in the second quarter (it wasn’t), this game ended up belonging to the bench crew that built leads in both the second and fourth quarters in the Suns’ 115-106 Game 4 win. The series now heads back to Los Angeles tied at two games apiece.
“The bench was fantastic,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “They were by far easily the difference tonight.”
Added Grant Hill, “They won the game for us.”
The bench outscored their Los Angeles counterparts 54-20, as three Suns reserves hit double figures. Every bench player was in the positive double digits of plus-minus, led by Goran Dragic’s +18 in 18 minutes (thanks to eight points, eight assists and four boards). They were a key part of that 41-point second and they used a 12-2 fourth-quarter run to win the game against Lakers starters.
Although both the starters and reserves scored proficiently, it was the bench unit that really locked down in the zone and used its quickness to force Los Angeles to the perimeter while helping the Suns dominate the battle of the boards to the tune of 51-36, surprising since it’s usually difficult to rebound out of a zone.
To the national fan, seeing Lou Amundson (seven boards in 17 minutes) and Goran Dragic get the better of the vaunted Lakers must have been surprising, but anybody who has watched the Suns all season must be wondering why the bench waited until Game 4 to unleash a performance like this.
This goes back to the confidence head coach Alvin Gentry has shown in the bench all season. He has gone 10 deep throughout the year and has left the bench in to finish halves and games when the unit is going particularly well all season. Therefore, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the bench would come through like this and then that Gentry would leave them in as a unit for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter.
“I think Alvin is smart in that he played them all season,” Hill said. “It’s not like he played them when he needed them. He played those guys, developed those guys, gave them confidence regardless of whether they were playing poorly or not. He put them out there all season, and they’ve had games like this before. They’ve had games where they won it for us. It’s not luck, it’s not by chance. They’ve been playing great all season.”
In the aftermath of this victory, Gentry told tales of starters asking to stay on the bench instead of checking in when his bench counterpart was going well, and Gentry later compared the Suns to a college team, which is fitting considering the way they freak out on the sidelines after a big play (I mean that in a good way) and since they’re winning with a 2-3 matchup zone.
After the Lakers’ bench played pretty well in Los Angeles, the unit didn’t even show up in this one aside from de facto starter Lamar Odom, who went for 15 and 10. If you take Odom out of the mix, the rest of the Lakers’ reserves were 2-for-13 with one rebound and five assists to go with a combined -33 in 31 minutes. The Lakers lost 21 points in the 14 minutes Shannon Brown played alone.
If the Lakers’ starters were to struggle, they would have had nowhere to turn on this night. But on a night in which no Suns starter recorded a positive plus-minus figure, the entire bench was in double figures in this measure, and that’s why the reserves ended their night on TNT.
“We definitely played the way we like to play, the way we wanted to play,” Amundson said.
To Gentry it was also important that the bench came in to a tied game at the beginning of the second quarter after the Suns have made a habit of digging deficits in this series. Just as they did in Game 2 of the San Antonio series, the bench changed the complexion of the game with sheer hustle.
Gentry applauded their defensive effort in particular, and really to me this has to do with creating a Phoenix Suns type of game. The reserves upped the energy level and created a fast game with threes flying on all sides. Sure, Kobe got hot in the second quarter (scoring 15) to keep the Lakers close and he later scored 16 in the third to get them closer, but he could not keep up in the fourth when he did not score until 1:32 remained.
Meanwhile, the Suns were able to continue scoring at an efficient pace while the Phoenix reserves in particular kept the Lakers on the perimeter.
Finally, this night was about Channing Frye’s redemption, another example of Alvin Gentry sticking with his guys. As I wrote in today’s Daily Dime, Frye was mired in the worst prime time slump that Phoenix has seen since Byung-Hyun Kim. The sweet-stroking big man was just 1-for-20 in the series after missing 16 consecutive shots entering this one, but once he hit his first three (a trey Frye knew was going in all the way that came after he missed his first shot of the contest) the slump was over.
Frye proceeded to nail a pair of long balls a minute apart in the Suns’ monster second quarter — which happened soon after Robin Lopez headed to the scorer’s table to originally check in for him — and then he drilled a dagger at the shot-clock buzzer in the fourth quarter during the Suns’ 12-2 run.
“I told you guys I’m just going to continue to shoot, and my teammates believed in me and I continued to just believe in myself,” Frye said. “I kind of came to a realization this is for some players a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so why work so hard and why still be playing when it’s almost June if you’re not going to go out there and just have fun and let it ride?”
Frye’s phone has been ringing off the hook with friends offering advice, and Frye said he couldn’t go anywhere around town — not even Circle K for a Slurpee — without getting some tips on his stroke.
But Frye insists his confidence never wavered.
“Come on, man, you’re asking the wrong dude,” Frye said. “My confidence is great every day. I’ll be honest, last game I was what, 0-for-7? If I shot another seven I thought I was going to go 7-for-14, so that’s what you have to do, you have to believe in yourself and believe if you’re putting in the work just go out there and shoot the ball.”
We’re about 1150 words deep into this story and there’s been hardly any word of the Suns’ starters.
That in a nutshell is what this night was all about.
Sure, Nash, Amare and Richardson all put up some stats, but it was the frenzied energy and sweet shooting of the reserves that won this game for the Suns.
The question now is if the bench will be able to duplicate this effort Thursday in Los Angeles.
Amundson on being interviewed by Craig Sager as a unit: “It was cool. It was real cool the fact that they just recognized that whole second unit. It’s only fair. I think we all feel like it’s a group effort every time we’re out there. We all kind of contribute, so it meant a lot to be recognized as a group.”
Dudley on the honor: That’s good for our bench. Sometimes you need a little recognition for what you do, and this team and our unit we go 10 deep. Most teams don’t do it, Lakers only go 7-8 guys.”
Dudley on Frye busting out of the slump: “It’s good. It’s good for us because he’s someone who’s all about confidence, so I could see him next game go 4-for-5 on threes. That’s how he is. Once he sees the ball go in the basket, there’s no telling what he might do.” …
The Suns hit just 22-of-32 free throws (68.8 percent), and they ended up knocking down only 11-of-30 threes (36.7 percent) despite the hot 8-for-16 second quarter from distance. … The Suns are a perfect 10-0 in the playoffs when holding a double-digit lead. They have won 25 of their past 26 such games overall. … Phoenix is 9-0 when leading or tied at halftime. … The Suns became the fourth team in franchise history to win 10 playoff games. Only the 2006 version of the Suns didn’t reach the Finals of the squads that accomplished that feat. … The Suns are 6-1 at home in the playoffs and have won seven straight home playoff games against the Lakers. The Suns are 9-2 all-time in Phoenix against Kobe Bryant in the playoffs.