Suns' toughness led to win over Lakers

For the better part of the decade, the Phoenix Suns have doctored their lineup in the offseason with one goal in mind: Counterpunching their No. 1 nemesis, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.

Amar'e Stoudemire, the Suns first line of defense in the early 2000s, was too inexperienced at the time and too small. Next came Kurt Thomas, a bull who also was out-fundamentalled by Duncan.

Shaquille O'Neal came to the desert two years ago, but he was too slow and too old to stop the post-season bleeding.

Enter Robin Lopez, the curly-haired 7-footer from Stanford whose twin brother came into the NBA more ballyhooed in the 2008 draft.

Lopez made an impact for the Suns after the All-Star break, but missed the last two weeks of the regular season and first two rounds of the postseason with a bulging disc.

Ironically, they didn't need him in finally exorcising their demons from Texas in the second round.

They need him now against those California sequoias. Lopez brought his buzz saw, and so did the much-criticized Stoudemire in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Sunday.

The NBA's best bombardiers imploded, missing 15 of 20 threes. But Lopez and Stoudemire put on their hard hats, lowered their heads and stormed the hoop against the Los Angeles Lakers.

That two-game bloodbath in the Staples Center last week turned into a celebration of orange, centered largely around the Suns two big men and their blitzkrieg to the bucket.

"Well, they attacked the hoop today,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "And, you know, earned 42 foul shots. And that's really the game plan. We seemed to be staying at home on the three-point shooters, and Stoudemire and Lopez had the night for them.''

Lopez, in only his third game since March 27, did more than score 20 points. He got nasty, earning a technical for elbowing Derek Fisher. He growled at both ends. He even surprised the general manager who drafted him. "He played great all year, but I don't think we expected 20 points from him.''

Lopez is the ultimate grunt for these flashy Suns, the one who embraces the dirty work -- and the dirty glare. "I just needed to make sure I kept people off the boards, stepped up on defense when there is penetration and offensively, when I had an opportunity, I needed to take it whether it was to get the ball to somebody else or attack the rim."

Who didn't attack the rim? Stoudemire led the charge with a career playoff-tying 42 points and 11 rebounds. He was so aggressive he suffered a cut on his forehead from a glancing blow to his goggles.

This was his answer to critics who chastised him for his passivity in the first two games in which he totaled 41 points and nine rebounds.

He said the criticism didn't affect him, however. "Not at all. Just the fact that I wanted to win, how important the game was - that's what motivated me and my teammates. We couldn't afford to go down 3-0.''

He was asked if he agreed with the local criticism. The All-Star who can opt out of his contract this summer didn't flinch. "Everybody is going to have their opinions. But from my standpoint, you can never question my determination, my focus, my dedication.''

Not Sunday.

Stoudemire led the parade to the line, hitting 14 of 18. The Suns sank 37 of 42 free throws, piling up 15 fouls on the Lakers trees -- four on Andrew Bynum, three on Pau Gasol and six on Lamar Odom.

Odom, who averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds in L.A., was largely a non-factor. "He had a game he doesn't want to remember,'' said Jackson.

The Suns played a game they want to copy Tuesday. Did someone say defense? They actually played some in Game 3 after allowing the Lakers to average 126 points and shoot nearly 58 percent the first two games.

Midway through the first quarter, with Kobe Bryant making his first five shots before missing a left-handed jumper on his way to 15 first quarter points and 36 in all, the Suns went to a zone defense

The result - the Lakers finished the quarter 4-for-19 --- encouraged Suns coach Alvin Gentry to stick with it the rest of the game.

Bingo. The Lakers jacked up an un-Laker-like 32 threes (they made nine) and coughed up 17 turnovers.

Ron Artest, a thorn in the Lakers' victories with 18 and 14 points, missed 9 of 13 shots, including 5 of 7 from three-point range.

That was more than enough for the Suns to overcome another huge game from Bryant and a poor three-point shooting game. That included another hapless performance for Channing Fyre, who was 0-for-7 Sunday and is now 1-for-20 in the series.

So now we have a series. Virtually left for dead, the Suns never panicked. They circled their wagon. No need for a Knute Rockne speech pre-game, said Gentry. "If we need that, we're in deep trouble,'' he said.

They're still not out of the dungeon. The Lakers stayed in this game until the final four minutes.

Steve Nash finished the game with 17 points, 15 rebounds, one turnover and a rearranged nose he broke against the Spurs. He matched toughness with Lopez and Stoudemire. "That's got to be our calling card,'' said Nash. "We can't make excuses about how big they are and the matchup problems and all that stuff. We've got to fight tooth and nail.''

And nose ... elbow ... and forehead.