Suns Force Lakers Into Pivotal Game 5
Last spring, the Lakers won pivotal Game 5s at home in the playoffs to break 2-2 ties against Houston and Denver en route to winning the championship. Last month, they did the same, escaping after a first-round series against Oklahoma City was deadlocked.
Now, it's happening again.
After a 115-106 loss to Phoenix on Tuesday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, this series is suddenly tied 2-2 after it had been 2-0. And it's driving the Zen Master zany.
Title runs, you see, once were a bit of a breeze for Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. When his Lakers won crowns in 2000, 2001 and 2002, they either led 3-1 or had swept eight of nine seven-game series. Only once was a seven-game series tied 2-2, that being the epic 2002 West final against Sacramento.
Suddenly, Jackson now sees a series tied 2-2 for the fourth time in two seasons, with the Lakers facing a pivotal Game 5 at home. Might the odds at some point catch up with them?
"Obviously, disappointed,'' the Lakers coach said of how he felt after the Game 4 setback at US Airways Center. "We thought we could come here and get a game. And, unfortunately, you know we weren't up to the task.''
Jackson sure acted a lot differently after Tuesday's game than before it, when he was cracking one-liners about reports that have linked him with coaching jobs in Chicago and New Jersey next season.
Maybe the Lakers once again will win a critical Game 5 Thursday at the Staples Center. Maybe they'll do so in resounding fashion, which is what they've done in the past three such situations by winning by an average margin of 24.3 points.
But the Suns aren't the Rockets, who were staggering last spring without injured center Yao Ming. They aren't the Nuggets, a team you just wait to see pick up a few technical fouls and beat themselves. And they aren't the Thunder, a young team who had few guys eating solid food when Jackson won his first of 10 rings with Chicago in 1991.
"Feels great,'' forward Amar'e Stoudemire, who had a team-high 21 points Tuesday, said of how his Suns now stand. "Feel we have a chance of winning the series.''
The Suns sure do. Despite getting sand kicked in their faces in the first two games in Los Angeles, losing by an average margin of 16.5 points, they won the two games in Phoenix by nine points apiece.
The Suns have ticked off Lakers star Kobe Bryant. But, if Bryant is so mad he's going to go out and score at least 35 points and hand out at least 10 assists in Game 5, who cares?
Bryant had 36 points and 11 assists in Game 3 and the Lakers lost. Bryant had 38 points and 10 assists in Game 4 and the Lakers lost.
"Our defense could have been much better,'' Bryant said in response to the first question of his postgame press conference.
"We lost the game because our defense sucked,'' Bryant responded to the second question.
"Like I said, we've got to do a much better job defensively,'' he said after the third question.
OK, you get the point. He offered similar answers to questions four, five and six.
Bryant was rather redundant, but at least didn't say, "Both teams played hard.''
The Lakers looked on as the Suns rolled up 115 or more points in consecutive games at US Airways Center. When was the last time that has happened to them in the playoffs?
Try 2006 in the first round against Phoenix, a series the Lakers sure don't want to remember. They blew a 3-1 lead and gave up 126 and 121 points in dropping the final two games.
Still, some of the Lakers didn't express the urgency after the game that the very serious Bryant did. Center Andrew Bynum said "there's no concern.'' Forward Lamar Odom simply shrugged as if the Lakers always win pivotal Game 5s at home in the playoffs.
"We always remain confident,'' Odom said. "We've been in this position before. ... Experience is the best teacher of them all.''
It might again be Thursday, but one of these days the ultra-talented Lakers are going to get burned by being too careless. This is a Phoenix outfit that suddenly is rejuvenated, although obviously having the homecourt advantage helped a great deal.
After missing his first shot of the game to extend his drought to a staggering 18 straight misses, two shy of the NBA playoff record of 20 consecutive misses by Boston guard Sam Cassell in 2008, Phoenix big man Channing Frye finally caught fire. He ended up shooting 4 of 8, all attempts from three-point range, for 14 points as Phoenix's bench outscored the Lakers' reserves a staggering 54-20.
Stoudemire's game is looking good again as he averaged 31.5 points in the two games in Phoenix. And Steve Nash is, well, Steve Nash, no matter what his nose looks like.
"We've got to go back home and make sure we have a really good intense game, where we set the tone from the (start) and we play as hard as possible for 48 minutes,'' said Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who at least is more in Bryant's camp of concern than the carefree camp of Bynum and Odom. "So we've got to understand they're a team, that they're dangerous, as they proved. I think people were overlooking them after the first two games, and just thinking ahead already. And so obviously that was a big mistake.''
A big mistake in Game 5, and the Lakers finally might get burned. The team that practices in the shadow of LAX can not afford to be lax.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson