Phoenix Suns Now 2-2 With Lakers in Western Conference Finals on Bench's 54-Point Performance. Most Important Game Since Charles Barkley Era on Thursday Night in L.A.

"All we've done is earn ourselves a great opportunity," Steve Nash told reporters, after the Phoenix Suns defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 115-106 at US Airways Center last night.

"We can't be content! We can't be content!" Suns Coach Alvin Gentry stressed to his team in the locker room after a game that the Suns pretty much controlled from buzzer to buzzer.

True. This great Western Conference Finals series between Kobe Bryant's team and Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire's team heads back to Los Angeles for game five on Thursday night, with things tied 2-2. With each team having held home court.

Now it's up to the Suns to win in the alien territory of Staples Center, scene of four Lakers'  titles, dating back to when Bryant played with now-obsolete Shaquille O'Neal.

Where fans led by Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington will be screaming for Los Suns to go back, tails between legs, to the land of SB 1070 -- how dare they challenge mighty coach Phil Jackson's Team Hollywood!

Don't the Suns freakin' know that Lakers forward Lamar Odom's married to a Kardashian (no, not the hot one, Kim -- she's with Super Bowl champion Reggie Bush)!

As Nash and Gentry suggest, the Suns have their work cut out with them.

They've got to win at least one game in this best-of-seven series on the Lakers' home court, where two of the next three games will happen -- which makes the game Thursday night the most important for the Suns since the Charles Barkley era.

'Cause if the Suns, who now have momentum in the series (the Lakers looked like deer in headlights last night), can manage to win game five, they could come back home up 3-2 for game six and close out the series Saturday evening.

Winning game five on a hot streak will be their best chance of besting the defending champions and advancing to the NBA Finals against probably Boston (the Celtics are up 3-1 over the Orlando Magic). Nobody on Planet Orange wants to see the conference series go to a game seven at Staples.

Better to have a chance of winning in six before an ecstatic home crowd -- like last night's.

The noise was so loud that Lakers forward Ron Artest seemed bamboozled out of his wits in the final period. At one point, he even purposely fouled Steve Nash just past mid-court when the game was on the line and the Lakers were in the penalty. Bryant yelled at the dumb, lout, and Nash put in two free throws. Automatic.

But this game had less to do with stars Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire -- though both played admirably -- than with the phenominal Suns bench of  guards Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa, center Channing Frye, and forwards Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson.

These guys combined for 54 points, compared with the Lakers' bench's 20.

Dragic made the play of the game -- a driving layup through traffic that left crusty, old Lakers point guard Derek Fisher flat-footed. It was part of an eight-point, eight-rebound performance in just 17 minutes for the second-year Slovenian, who as TNT commentator Kenny Smith put it, "out Steve Nashed Steve Nash!"

After missing 19 straight baskets in the first three games of the series, Frye found his shot again -- and how! The former Phoenix St. Mary's and University of Arizona standout hit four three-pointers and finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 35 minutes.

Barbosa scored 14 points, including two threes during crunch time, in 16 minutes. Dudley had 11, including two threes, and six rebounds in 27 minutes. And Amundson had seven points and seven boards in 17 minutes.

As we've said all season long, Dudley and Amundson's hustle doesn't show up on the stat sheet. These guys play killer defense and go for loose balls like their lives depend on it. And in many games this season, the Suns' NBA lives did depend on them.

Said Gentry after last night's game, "[The Bench] played much better defense than offense, and they played great offense."

As for rebounding, despite the Lakers height advantage (Pao Gasol and Andrew Bynum are 7-footers, and Odom's 6-10) Phoenix killed L.A. on the boards, 51-46. This included 18 offensive rebounds for the Suns that led to a butt-load of second-chance points.

Phoenix's only 7-footer, starting center Robin Lopez, scored 20 points in game three but only six last night, yet he was a presence during his 13 minutes, neutralizing Gasol in the paint.

In fact, Gentry's game plan seems to be that Kobe Bryant is going to get his points -- nothing much anybody can do about it. But if the Lakers beat Gentry's Suns, their big-men must make it happen. And the second-year Suns head coach's players limited L.A. starters Gasol and Bynum to15 and 12 points, respectively, in game four.

We should mention that Bryant, the best player in the NBA in our book, was the high scorer in the game with 38 points, including six threes. He also had 10 assists and seven rebounds.

For Phoenix, Stoudemire was less of a factor than in game three, when he lit up the Lakers up for 42 points, but he still led all Phoenix scorers with 21. He had eight boards.

As for Nash, he was banged in the face again by Fisher (somebody needs to hard-foul the prickly fucker in the next game, preferably leaving him needing stitches). Nash had 15 points and eight assists.

A hugely positive note about the bench's great play was that starters Nash and Stoudemire were able to sit out almost all of the fourth period, starters Jason Richardson and Lopez sat out all of that quarter, and starting forward Grant Hill only had to play 20 minutes of the entire game.

Translation: fresher Suns starters two days from now.

Meanwhile, all but one of the Lakers' first-five had to bang it out until the end, with Bryant playing 44 minutes, Gasol and Artest played 35, and Fisher played 33. Bynum, who's been having knee issues, didn't play as much, at 25.

Unless you're lucky enough to have a ticket to game five in L.A. on Thursday night, you can watch the action on TNT, beginning at 6 p.m.. Radio KTAR-AM. For more information, go to



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Rick Barrs
Contact: Rick Barrs