by Dennis Tarwood / @tuffyr
Alvin Gentry has been coy each game in the Western Conference Finals about his plans for the game. For example, he demurred when asked about going to the zone before Game 3. Preceding Game 4, he mumbled something about rotations when an inquiry was made about second unit time.
And before Game 6, Alvin Gentry was asked if Amar’e Stoudemire would receive more attention on the offensive end. “It’s difficult to explain,” Gentry explained by not explaining.
This was a brilliant decision from Gentry, no matter the result. If Stoudemire succeeded, Game 7 started in L.A. with Gasol and Bynum’s confidence shaken. If he failed, he left the Suns for his summer of free agency remembering the Suns turned to him with the season on the line.
Amar’e Stoudemire then submitted a 7-for-20 performance with only four rebounds that helped sink the Suns’ season in a 111-103 Los Angeles Lakers win in Phoenix Saturday night, vaulting the Lakers and Boston Celtics into a Finals that promise to keep Magic Johnson’s dance card filled through Flag Day.
Stoudemire spent three quarters looking from the outside in on the paint before exerting his will in the fourth by taking a first step offensively that could have cleared the Grand Canyon and earning six free throws with three-for-five shooting from the floor.
However, the effort came far too late as most of the Suns’ comebacks did in the series, showing that digging so many holes in the desert can eventually lead you to a hole even you can’t escape.
After a hideous first quarter from both squads where defense was represented by two fouls on three-point shooters (Bynum and Hill committing the acts against proper defense) and both teams shot over 50% from three and two, the Lakers could only claim a 37-34 lead.
Sure, it was an elimination game, but only those who value scoring over the quality of the scoring enjoyed the beginning of Game 6. (By the way, all of those people currently reside in a Hattiesburg, MS, clinic.)
Most of that effort came from an invigorated Ron Artest, who earned 12 points in the first frame and 24 through three quarters (25 total), half from busting the zone via the three (4-6 in those three quarters). His defense, which lasted all four quarters, shushed Jason Richardson to a demure 13 points. Queensbridge must be so proud.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol didn’t contribute much offensively on the night, but their imitation of cholesterol lining the lane forced Stoudemire into fallaway jumpers and short leaners instead of interior domination. Lamar Odom then waxed the glass until Suns fans squeaked (12 total) as the additional possessions added up for the Lakers, creeping out to an 18-point lead late in the third.
Sasha Vujacic took advantage of the wide lead to continue his Slovenian vengeance on Goran Dragic for perceived slights, imitating the Robin Lopez-Derek Fisher altercation from earlier in the series and throwing his arms up in a cactus signal into Goran’s face near half court at the start of the fourth. Vujacic didn’t appear to consider himself lucky to get away with a flagrant one.
After the game, Phil Jackson described the altercation as such: “Sasha got involved in a flagrant foul.” You know, like a fender bender except where one person uses their car as a weapon. A cactus-shaped weapon.
Craig Sager of TNT asked Kobe Bryant about the act afterwards: “I’m gonna kill him.” After an elongated pause, Kobe remembered he’s supposed to smile after threatening to kill people to make it appear as if he wasn’t serious. So he did. Briefly.
(In the post-game presser, he was asked if he could elaborate. Kobe replied, “He’s still breathing.” Beat. Beat. Smile.)
The Suns fans were inspired by the violence as was Dragic, who sunk both free throws and two aggressive layups in quick succession to bring the lead back to nine. The second unit, left alone by Gentry to burn brightly, whittled the lead down to 3 from 15 over the next eight minutes, unable to punch through.
“I’m not mad at him and I hope he’s not mad at me,” said the soft-spoken Dragic after the game. “I wish him good luck in the Finals.” Pull the video; those eight minutes were not those of a kid passively accepting a cactus to the back of the head. Those were a man’s drives against a petulant countryman.
As this transpired, Kobe (37 points on 25 shots) grew tired of the charade and lashed on his vanquishin’ kicks. He drained unlikely shot after impossible shot, finishing with 3-7 in the frame but those three coming over double-teams predicated by the man-to-man defense Gentry switched to in a valiant effort to stop, slow, or at least irritate Kobe.
No such luck. After one particularly ridiculous make, Gentry said he told Grant Hill, “Good defense,” to which Kobe replied with a pat on Alvin’s bottom and a quick, “Not quite good enough.”
Gentry effectively shrugged after the game. “I mean, what can you say about Kobe? I don’t know if there’s words.” There are, Coach, but they’re not quite good enough, either.
With that extra push, the Lakers locked the game out at an 8-point lead with less than a minute to play and the Suns had just a bit too much sand to swim through at the end.
“It’s a great source of pride for me to play with these guys,” Steve Nash (21/5/9 on 11 shots) told the media after the game. “… I’m excited I got a chance to have a year like this with these guys.” NBA TV showed Nash and Gentry sharing an emotional moment in the locker room before Nash spoke, reflecting the length and breadth of the season.
Stoudemire felt he gave his all to the cause as well. “Honestly, I felt like I was going to pass out for awhile there.” And for his future? “Still not sure… I’m just going to take a couple days, enjoy the family, and start figuring out what the next move is.”
As the Suns’ locker room filtered out, one reporter took a moment to say goodbye to Amar’e, just in case he didn’t return next season. “Possibly,” he replied as the reporter turned away. He rolled the word around in his mouth a few times as he sat down, testing the notion out loud. “Possibly, possibly, pos-si-bly…”
-Fans throughout the arena sported the orange shirts handed out but also orange bandages on their foreheads. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic reported the bandages came from Amar’e’s mom, who handed them out.
-In the arena: AZ Senator John McCain and his wife. Also: Dean Cain. Not the same person. True fact.
-Also present: Jimmy Goldstein. The Phoenix Comicon took place across the street Saturday and Jimmy would’ve fit in nicely at either event.
-Robin Lopez again showed good energy but little ability to avoid foul trouble. Channing Frye compensated for Lopez’s minutes with 13 rebounds (9 more than Amar’e) and 12 points in 40 minutes.
-Kobe cut his hand in the first quarter and required two attempts to stem the bleeding. He then returned the favor on the Suns for the remainder of the game.
-The Suns’ A/V staff tried to inspire the crowd by showing the last time the Suns were down 3-2 to the Lakers, but Tim Thomas was prominently involved, so that didn’t work as hoped.
-Before the game, Dan Majerle posted two quotes on the Suns’ locker room whiteboard. One came from Churchill and the other… as noted by Jeramie McPeek, Suns’ VP of Digital, from the movie “Hitch”. Don’t go changin’, Dan.