If you like low-scoring, slow-paced, low-energy basketball, US Airways Center was the place to be in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
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Then the Suns bench went and ruined the mood.
The moment Goran Dragic and the reserves stepped on the floor in the second period, it was as if they had discovered an unplugged extension cord.
Dragic stuck it back in the socket, the reserves scored 24 points in seven minutes and Phoenix raced to a 10-point lead, with the bench connecting on 17 of 23 field goals in the period, outscoring the starters 34-30 in the first half and draining six three-pointers.
In case anyone was worried it was a fluke, the bench performed an encore in the fourth quarter.
With Kobe Bryant in the midst of an epic night, the Lakers rallied to take a one-point lead against the Suns starters late in the third period. But when the bench re-entered in the fourth quarter, it started raining threes.
First Channing Frye — yes, Frye — drilled a 3-pointer at the eight-minute mark. Then Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley followed and a two-point lead was nine.
“It was contagious,” Dudley said. “Once you start seeing that ball go in the basket everybody else wants to do it.”
After the flurry, Lakers coach Phil Jackson called timeout and everyone in the arena held their breath because they knew what the Lakers were thinking.
Help us Kobe-Wan. You’re the only one who can save us.
But not even Bryant’s brilliance (38 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) could keep this series from being tied.
“I thought they played about as well as they could play,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said of his reserves. “I thought they were much better defensively than they were offensively, and I thought they were great offensively.”
The final tally said 54-point, 23-rebound, 13-assist great, but the impact of the performance was far more meaningful.
“We are back in this series,” Barbosa said succinctly.
This was the breakout performance Phoenix had been waiting for from its reserves, who were widely regarded as the teams biggest advantage against L.A..
Dudley had promised a renaissance in Game 3, then the bench hit 3 of 22 field goals a performance that was masked only by the individual brilliance of Amar’e Stoudemire.
But on Tuesday, all five reserves, even Frye, stepped up.
With the Suns leading by four, Frye, who had missed 17 straight shots in this series, hit a three-pointer from the right of the circle at the seven-minute mark of the second period that absolutely ignited the team. The Suns’ bench, and the arena, erupted.
“We know he can shoot the ball, so we were very happy for him,” Dragic said.
At Monday’s practiced, Frye had bristled at media questions about his confidence. Following Tuesday’s game, he offered an explanation.
“This is a new situation for me,” he said. “There’s a lot of attention, a lot of media stuff, and I’m kind of a low-key guy. I’ll be honest, it was just a bit much that it was that big of a deal.”
Frye said he went home upset with the media but had an eventual epiphany.
“I was like, ‘You know, what? It’s what they have to do.’ It’s not like you guys are personally attacking me as a person. It’s my job to make shots, and I wasn’t doing it.”
That wasn’t a problem for the bench on Tuesday. Barbosa hit 6 of 8 shots for 14 points, Dudley had 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting, Louis Amundson hit all three of his shots for seven points, and Dragic finished with eight points and eight assists in just under 18 minutes while delivering the highlight of the night on a spinning drive down the lane that ended with him switching hands for an off-balance layup.
The unit was so effective that Gentry chose to leave them until about three minutes remained in the fourth quarter, or about three minutes longer than their normal substitution pattern.
“Alvin kept looking at the starters, and we were like, leave them out there, don’t let us mess it up,” forward Grant Hill said.
Every member of the bench has said at one point during the postseason that defensive intensity fuels their offense. That was certainly the case in Game 4. You could feel the energy from the moment the unit took the floor.
“Everybody was engaged. Everybody was active,” said Dragic, one of a growing number of Suns who are falling in love with the zone defense. “If we’re going to get stops, we’re going to push the ball and score some easy layups.
“I think that’s very important for our bench and for our whole team.”
That’s two straight wins against the defending champs that followed two vastly different scripts. It’s up to the Lakers to counter-punch against an increasingly confident bunch.