The Suns’ reserves have been the heart and soul of Phoenix’s extended playoff run. Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Louis Amundson have each had their moment in the spotlight, with their collective shooting, energy, savvy, and synergy making all the difference for the Suns in these playoffs.
That wasn’t exactly the case in Game 3. Those same five reserves combined for just 15 points on a horribly ineffective 3-for-21 from the field, and they missed each of their 11 total attempts from three-point range. The spark that made the second and fourth quarters so enjoyable for Suns fans this postseason was extinguished for Game 3, which would seem to be a recipe for disaster given the constitution of this series thus far. Phoenix was having trouble matching L.A.’s offensive output even with some serious help from the bench. Take away that crutch, and the Suns’ return to the US Airways Center would seem destined to end in failure.
That wasn’t exactly the case, either. The Suns’ starters stepped up in a big way, with Amar’e Stoudemire (42 points on 22 shots, 11 rebounds) not just returning to form, but evolving into something of a monster. He still won’t be making the All-Defensive team anytime soon, but Stoudemire played with more focus on the fairer end of the court while completely dominating the offensive end.
Steve Nash (17 points, 15 assists, just one turnover) and Amar’e looked far more comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll than in the two games prior, which made a world of difference for the Western Conference Finals underdogs. Part of that is Nash having the benefit of better screens, but the improved timing and accuracy of his passes and Stoudemire’s newfound assertiveness were crucial to the slight refocusing of the Phoenix offense.
The Suns’ weren’t exactly struggling on the offensive end in this series prior to Sunday night (they scored at a rate of 116.3 and 116.7 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 and 2 respectively), but Game 3 marked Amar’e’s first breakout performance in the series and a nice uptick in team-wide offensive efficiency (120.4 points per 100 possessions).
The subs clearly weren’t the source of that offensive improvement, meaning that on this night, the starters were the team’s rightful saviors. Jason Richardson finished with 19 points on 15 shots, including four threes made in seven attempts. Grant Hill only scored five points, but had nine rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Robin Lopez very nearly stole the show by dropping 20 points on eight of his 10 attempts, but his ability to finish around the rim was a bit dwarfed by Amar’e’s fantastic outing.
This isn’t to neglect the Suns’ improved defense in Game 3, which our own Kurt Helin already addressed in this space. The adjustment from man-to-man coverage to a zone look did exactly what Phoenix needed it to: bogged down L.A.’s offense just enough to secure a win. The Suns honestly don’t need to play terrific defense in order to win games in this series, but they do have to play some defense. The Suns need to work as hard, rotate as quickly, and contest as much as they did in Game 3 if they’re going to take another game in this series, but the starters’ ability to execute in the zone does offer a glimmer of hope.
Goran Dragic may have completely blitzed the Spurs in the second round and Jared Dudley’s hustle has justly received praise throughout the playoffs, but Game 3 serves as a much-needed reminder that the Suns’ starters are the bread-winners. Replacing the useless Jarron Collins with Robin Lopez makes that even more apparent, and though the boost from the reserve unit has been welcome throughout the season, the production of Phoenix’s starting five has always been the foundation for the Suns’ success. Complementary players are nice additions to any team, but at the end of the day they’re still just complementary players.
Against elite competition (and the Lakers are just that), the Suns’ starters will have to perform like they did in Game 3; less as a collection of the team’s most talented players, and more like the cohesive whole they’re capable of being.