It took five games, a heart-wrenching defeat and the threat of playoff extinction to coax them out of hibernation, but guess who finally showed up to the postseason party? Those other Phoenix Suns.
The run-and-gun Suns. The triple-digit, triple-threat, triple-double-seeking Suns, who gave themselves one final kick at the can at the Lakers in Los Angeles with a 114-97 rout in Game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Now the only questions are, still trailing 3-2 in the series did the good-time Suns show up one game too late? Can they feed off the momentum? And will Raja Bell, who was ejected with 7:33 left in the game after a clothesline hit to Kobe Bryant on a drive to the basket — earning a flagrant, type-2 (most serious) foul — be available to hound him in Game 6 at the Staples Center Thursday night?
This series, which has had more than its share of physical play, has avoided the rash of playoff suspensions around the league until now. What happens from here is unclear.
“All of us choirboys are living up to our reputations,” Suns guard Steve Nash said.
Boris Diaw, continuing to get better and better as his first playoff experience continues, came up huge with 25 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. After Phoenix gave back and early 10-point lead, Diaw scored Phoenix's final 11 points of the first half, staking the Suns to a 56-47 halftime lead that they used as a springboard to taking complete control in the third quarter.
Phoenix made only eight 3-pointers in 23 attempts, but hit them in bunches and at key points in the game. When the Lakers whittled Phoenix’s 22-point lead to 10 at 93-83 on a Bryant 3-pointer — just seconds after Bell’s ejection — Leandro Barbosa and Shawn Marion hit back-to-back bombs to restore Phoenix’s lead to 16 and take the air out of the comeback attempt.
“We finally put some points on the board and we finally got a decent second quarter,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t have to tell you how well Boris played, but we had a lot of guys step up. Our defense stayed the same, and our offense played better. And it ends in a 17-point win.”
Before the game, D’Antoni was asked to gauge the mood of his team after Sunday’s Game 4 overtime loss in which the team blew late leads in both regulation and overtime.
“We’re mad, angry, ticked off,” D’Antoni said. “We already play as hard as we can, so I don’t know if we need the anger. But we definitely have it now.”
The Suns channeled that anger in some positive ways, getting strong nights from Diaw, Nash (22 points) and another second-half surge from Shawn Marion, who had 16 of his 21 points after intermission. For the second straight game, the Suns matched the Lakers intensity on the boards (36 rebounds to 37 for Los Angeles) and outscored them in the paint (48-42).
The Suns also enjoyed another good night from the free throw line, nailing 22 of 26 free throws — including an 11-for-11 night from Diaw.
But the anger also spilled over in the actions of Bell, who said he was hit in the face several times during the series and picked a poor way to respond.
“It was a bad play on my part. I overreacted,” Bell said. “I lost my head for a second. I don’t know what to expect. I hope they’ll understand it.”
Both Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson said they hoped Bell would not be suspended and looked forward to playing the best team the Suns can put on the floor Thursday.
“They just got tangled up and Raja just gave him a bulldog — what you see in bulldogging where I come from,” Jackson said. “I don’t think it’s anything beyond flagrant, like there was a punch being thrown. We want him out there. We want their full team out there to play."
Bryant, who led the Lakers with 29 points and added seven rebounds — and answered Bell's hard foul with smile and a defiant shake of his head — was ejected himself with 3:11 left to play after berating official Leon Wood for what he thought was a hard foul by Phoenix's James Jones on Kwame Brown. It was Bryant's second technical of the night; he and Bell engaged in a shoving match in the second quarter.
"We had officials making up rules tonight, things that weren’t in the rulebook," Jackson said. "That happens sometimes there is a lot of pressure on these referees."
The Suns could be very short-handed for Game 6. Bell's status is up in the air and Tim Thomas didn't play in the fourth quarter due to tightness in his left knee and hamstring — the same area that he injured in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
With their backs to the wall, the Suns came out roaring with seven straight points and held the Lakers scoreless for the first 3:39 until Luke Walton hit a 3-pointer.
But despite another poor start by Smush Parker (0-for-5) and Kwame Brown (three fouls in the first 10 minutes), the Lakers quickly reeled in the Suns by the end of the quarter and took their first lead at 32-31 on a Bryant drive and slam dunk with 9:53 left in the half.
With bench players Barbosa and Eddie House again struggling when called upon, D'Antoni quickly went back to his starters and was rewarded with a series-high 29-point second quarter. Diaw scored Phoenix's final 11 points — nine of them from the free throw line.