Suns Get Gritty, Feisty in Game 3 Win
The nose was the newest problem, as the head of Lakers guard Derek Fisher nailed the Phoenix point guard with just 19 seconds remaining in Game 3 Sunday night and a quick adjustment was called for. With the team doctor convinced it was broken, Nash "readjusted the cartilage" on the spot and proceeded to bury two late free throws that were icing on the cake that was Phoenix's 118-109 win.
And as Nash later walked toward his postgame press conference at US Airways Center, his Nile River-looking snout leading his way through the tunnel, it was the satisfied smile that still stood out amid the wreckage of flesh and bone. He was, in other words, the Suns' perfect poster boy for both the evening and the series.
After being battered and bruised through two games of the Western Conference finals, with the Lakers cruising to a 2-0 lead that had so many expecting a continued one-sided affair, Phoenix put together a pearly-white performance that was more than enough to overshadow the ugliness.
The zone defense that was employed from the second quarter on might have been the tactical punch thrown, but the Suns' aggressive style and old-fashioned fight was the emotional difference.
"To me, that (tenacity) has got to be our calling card in this series," Nash said. "We can't make excuses about how big they are and the matchup problems and all that stuff. Those are just excuses.
"But we've got to fight tooth and nail for every inch and match them. ... It's got to be toughness, because if we play the game like a normal game or play it on paper, they'll probably beat us."
The Suns were aggressive from the start, with forward Amar'e Stoudemire's 42-point explosion starting with seven free-throw attempts in the first quarter on a night in which his Suns would take 42 trips to the line to the Lakers' 20. Nash was back to his sensational ways, scoring 17 points while posting an absurd assist-to-turnover ratio of 15 to one.
Big man Robin Lopez finally had the sort of impact the Suns had hoped for when learning he would return for this series, although few expected it to be of the offensive variety. He scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, all while sending plenty of not-so-subtle messages along the way and typically using a sharp-edged body part to do so.
The Suns had apparently taken heed of the words of assistant coach Dan Majerle, who drew up an emotionally-charged board inside the team's locker room before the game.
"Our Court. Our Time. Kick Ass!!" read one message.
After two games worth of Pau Gasol dominance down low, even the Xs and Os instruction for defensive post play had a pinch of passion.
"Post-ups, 3/4 [front]. Meet them early and fight."
As small forward and resident emotional leader Grant Hill noted, "fight" was the operative word of the evening for the Suns.
"You talk about the zone [defense], but they still scored 60-something points in the second half," Hill said. "We just played hard. We fought. We watched some tape of the game that we beat them earlier this season at home and compared that to the games that we played in Game 1 and Game 2, and the effort just wasn't there.
"We needed to come out and we needed to fight. It got to a point where it wasn't just Xs and Os. It wasn't about what we were running. It was just about competing and fighting and having heart. I thought we certainly did a better job of that tonight, and we're going to have to do the same thing the rest of the way."
With so many elements of their winning formula still missing -- most notably the disappearing bench and disastrous play of Channing Frye (now 1-for-20 shooting in the series) -- the Suns welcomed back a characteristic that always comes in handy in the postseason: grit. And before Nash took the late lead as the captain of that cause, it was the big man who had shown his fiery side before: Lopez.
But Lopez had missed the season's first 15 games with a broken foot, then barely played upon his return. What's worse, he even underperformed in a 3-on-3 practice scrimmage on Dec. 10, then proceeded to slam a door so hard while leaving the floor that the window shattered and Gentry's session with the media was interrupted by broken glass.
Some five months later -- with Lopez returning after missing the latter part of the season and the first two series with a back injury -- he helped the Suns pick up the pieces of what appeared to be a broken team. Midway through the third quarter, he added a bit of edgy gamesmanship to an already-chippy game.
With the Suns up 71-66 after a Stoudemire jumper, Lopez sauntered down court and appeared to intentionally veer toward Fisher as he walked the opposite way. Lopez's elbow grazed Fisher's head, and the Lakers point guard was so incensed that he sprinted back up court to express his displeasure.
It was the sort of play that thrilled Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who knows his team must maintain this style from here on out.
"We all [had edge]," Gentry said after his press conference. "I mean, come on guys. If we lose this game the series is practically over. We understand that. I thought everybody understood that we had to win the game tonight. I thought everybody played with somewhat of an edge, because we understood what was at stake."