Before Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Phil Jackson was peppered with questions about his future in Los Angeles, where he may have to take a pay cut to re-up.
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The questions came amid reports his old team, the Chicago Bulls, and the New Jersey Nets, buoyed by their new Russian owner’s billions, might pursue him.
Jackson danced around most of them, although he quipped, “I like to have a vodka,’’ when asked about the Nets.
After the Phoenix Suns' reborn bench and their “girlie’’ zone defense punked the Lakers, 115-106, Tuesday to send the series back to L.A. knotted at 2, Jackson might have to address his future sooner than he expected.
He certainly could have used a shot or three of vodka after watching the Suns' ballyhooed five-deep bench — even ice-cold Channing Frye — finally join the series and rendered a 38-point effort by Kobe Bryant moot.
After laying eggs — Fryed eggs, to be exact — in the first three games, outplayed by a thin and far less-heralded Lakers bench, the Frye-fueled unit turned a two-time MVP (Steve Nash) and two other All-Stars (Grant Hill and Amar’e Stoudemire) into expensive cheerleaders.
They also turned Bryant into a critical spokesman for the back-pedaling Lakers. His team, he said, lost its sense of urgency and any semblance of defense. “We lost the game because our defense sucked.’’
The Suns' reserves had much to do with that. Has there ever been a performance like this in May with so much at stake by a faceless group of no-name role players?
Goran Dragic looked like a wasted draft pick last season. Frye, a bust in Portland last season, missed 18 straight shots before catching fire in Game 4.
Jared Dudley is about as athletic as an elephant. Louis Amundson is on his third team in five seasons. And Leandro Barbosa is rarely called the “Brazilian Blur’’ anymore.
But they turned this game around in the second quarter and won it in the fourth with Nash, Hill, Stoudemire, Jason Richardson and Robin Lopez anchored to the bench until the final three minutes.
“The bench was fantastic,’’ said Nash. “They made a lot of plays offensively, but defensively they were great in the zone. They scrambled. They were intelligent. They made good decisions. And, you know, they were by far the difference.’’
Let us count the ways.
They arrived on the scene to start the second quarter with the score tied at 23. Dudley kicked the period off burying a three. Barbosa blurred to a layup. Dragic flew to the floor to tie up Bryant and followed with a driving reverse layup. Dudley blocked an Andrew Bynum jumper.
On and on it went, a relentless ambush that later featured three bombs by Frye and a 47-40 lead the starters stretched to nine at the half. The damage: The bench produced 24 points in its seven-minute stretch in what became a 41-point quarter, 30 in all from the reserves.
Their fourth quarter encore was even better. They returned with the Suns up 85-84 and didn’t leave until they three-pointed the Lakers to death with back-to-back-to-back bombs by Frye, Barbosa and Dudley that produced a 103-90 lead.
Final tally: The reserves shot 22 of 32 from the field, including 9 of 20 from long range. They nearly outscored the starters (54 vs. 61) and swamped the Lakers' bench, 54-20.
Asked if he was concerned his bench was smoked, Jackson said, “Well, it wasn’t a Cohiba, I’ll tell you that.’’
Nothing was premium about the Lakers on this night.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry perhaps paid his bench its best compliment. “I thought they were much better defensively than they were offensively and I thought they were great offensively.’’
Frye was the unlikely hero, with nine of his 14 points in the second quarter. He made 4 of 8 from threeland after missing 19 of his first 20 shots in the series.
“Well, I told you guys earlier I was going to continue to shoot and my teammates believed in me and I continued to believe in myself,’’ said Frye. “I came to the realization this is for some players a once in 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 relax, have fun.’’
This trip to the desert was no fun at all for the Lakers. They left frustrated, fatigued and confused. They were busted by the Suns' reserves, who brought the energy and will the Lakers lacked, outhustled and badly outrebounded.
In the telltale fourth quarter, Bryant barely touched the ball — this after scoring 31 points in the second and third quarters. His second shot of the quarter — and first field goal — didn’t come until 1:32 was left in the game.
What are these Lakers thinking?
They had an off day to figure out the zone defense that caught them off guard in Game 3, but once again didn’t rise to the occasion. Before the game, Jackson called the zone a scheme for “hiding players on defense.’’
Asked which players he was hiding, Gentry said, “You have to ask Phil. He has 10 championship rings.’’
Later, Gentry said of Game 4, “We’ll do what we have to do to win, including hiding players if we have to.’’
There’s no place to hide them now, especially the five reserves who are making a name for themselves — and sending Jackson to the liquor cabinet for some vodka.