Amar'e Stoudemire, with his 42 minute display of quick first steps and silky mid-range jumpers, owned the stage on Sunday night. Phoenix's second half zone defense, which caused the Lakers fits in Game 3, also gave home fans a reason to smile as they exited U.S. Airways Arena.
On an evening where both sides' big names (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol for the Lakers, Steve Nash and Stoudemire for the Suns) came to play, and where Alvin Gentry looked like the smartest man in the building, Phoenix wrestled the game away from L.A. over the final eight minutes.
While Nash, Gentry, and Amar'e deserve their pub, the Suns created separation with the help of some lesser known starters.
Jason Richardson and Robin Lopez contributed 39 combined points, and a handful of big buckets, in Phoenix's first win of the series.
Lopez discovered a scoring touch over the seven weeks he was sidelined with a back injury. The center, who suited up for the first time since March 26 in Game 1, has quietly pitched in 13.7 points/game, on 76 percent shooting, in this series.
It's a welcome addition to his solid game. Lopez, in his second NBA season, is quickly evolving into the Anderson Varajeo, or Joakim Noah, of the southwest.
He's built a reputation on scraping in the paint, coming up with loose balls and drawing hearty cheers from the passionate Phoenix crowd. Lopez is one of those workhorse guys that paying customers love. There's no half speed in his style of play.
His 20 points, on 8 of 10 shooting, in Game 3 quietly guided the Suns offense on the few occasions where Stoudemire didn't deliver buckets in bunches.
Though he lacked Amare's baseline speed, Lopez delivered tough shot after tough shot in the post, while also providing a spot-on shooting display from 12-15 feet. The ball came out of his hand lack a flat fastball, but with textbook rotation.
Lopez's biggest field goal of the night came with 7:57 left in regulation.
While L.A. continued to hang around, despite a number of perimeter misses and shaky turnovers, Lopez coolly buried a shot from the left elbow. The make gave Phoenix a 93-90 lead. Nothing earth shattering, but a little room for the home team to breathe.
With the Suns still holding a three point lead, following a Lakers basket, two Stoudemire free throws, and a botched L.A. possession, Jason Richardson nearly brought the house down.
Richardson hit an uncontested three from the left corner with 6:57 to go. Phoenix up by six. Timeout, Lakers. A rock concert decibel level at U.S. Airways.
The Suns finally broke free. They'd finally cut into L.A.'s swagger. The Lakers, for the first time in the Western Conference Finals, didn't look like the clear-cut, superior team.
Richardson relished every second of the euphoric moment. Rather than taking a page out of the Michael Jordan playbook, with just an assured fist pump or an "uh-huh" head nod, Richardson screamed for all to hear. There was no hiding his elation.
The guard was more visibly ecstatic than any of the 18,422 raucous fans in attendance.
The Lakers never cut it to a one possession game after the crowd, and the player, went wild.
While most of Phoenix's wings struggled from the perimeter, Richardson picked up the slack. He finished the contest with 19 points and four threes.
The former Warrior and Bobcat elevated his performance on Sunday. While his scoring total wasn't out of character, his clutch shooting made a difference. He's the Suns X-factor, especially in this series. The Lakers can't afford any more roars from Richardson.
A steady stream of smiles, chest bumps, and points from the affable Lopez won't help L.A.'s cause, either.
The Suns delivered a more complete team effort than their Lakers counterparts.
Phoenix now has a win under their belt. The series has turned competitive, just like that. L.A. still has control, but the Western Conference Finals are no longer an extended tune-up for the Lakers.
Phil Jackson has plenty of work in front of him between now and Game 4 on Tuesday night.