LOS ANGELES - Just a stone's throw from Tinseltown, the Suns followed the kind of script even a Hollywood producer might find too outlandish to swallow to push their wild playoff series with the Lakers to the distance. Look for Suns-Lakers VII, opening Saturday night in Phoenix.
With three players who were projected starters in training camp — Amaré Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas and the suspended Raja Bell — all unavailable, the Suns marshaled what was left of their forces and threw everything they had at the Lakers, using an incredible 32-point, 13-assist performance from Steve Nash and 22 points from patch-in starter Leandro Barbosa to turn back the Lakers 126-118 in overtime, sending Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Penny Marshall and 19,000 other Staples Center fans home without the Thursday night party they were expecting.
“We lose people to injury, to suspensions, we’re too small and all that, but we just show up and we play you all night long,” said Nash, one of four Suns to play at least 46 minutes. “Leandro comes in and give us what we need, Shawn Marion was a monster — it’s the kind of team you're proud to play with.”
Tim Thomas, who said his injured left leg started to cramp and tighten just two minutes into a night when he played 36, sent the game to overtime with a 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds left. He said he'll be ready for Game 7.
“I wouldn't miss it for the world,” Thomas said. “Even if my wife was having a baby, she might have to be angry for a few days.”
Marion added 20 points and 12 rebounds for Phoenix, putting to rest his playoff demons and earning high praise from coach Mike D’Antoni.
“Shawn was just Superman tonight," he said. "He played 50 minutes against Kobe (Bryant) and Lamar Odom on defense and then came down and gave us what we needed on the other end. It was an incredible performance, something you can say about each of the six guys who laid it all on the line and took this game.”
Subbing for the suspended Bell, the 23-year-old Barbosa handled the all the pressure thrown at him, guarded Bryant, stayed out of foul trouble and, paired with Nash, gave the Suns a backcourt that was just too quick for the lumbering Lakers to run down.
“I just worried about guarding Kobe, that’s all I thought about,” said Barbosa, who took stitches to his lower lip courtesy of a Bryant elbow in the first half. “I was feeling good. I want to play in these games. I was feeling good, and I can't wait to get home for the next game."
L.A. didn’t go quietly. Bryant, who wound up seeing equal doses of Marion and Barbosa defensively, did all he could with 50 points on 20-for-35 shooting including five 3-point bombs of all shapes, sizes and degrees of difficulty. The 50 points was the second-highest total against the Suns in their playoff history, bowing only to the 55 points Michael Jordan hung on Phoenix in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals.
But as is usually the case against the Suns, a big individual night by Kobe usually means a loss for the Lakers. And when Bryant missed his chance to win the game in regulation when his 17-footer was partially deflected by Marion just before the buzzer, the Suns took over in overtime.
Marion gave the Suns the lead for good on an alley-oop lay-in from Nash with 3:02 left. Boris Diaw (19 points, seven assists) followed with a lay-in off a Marion feed 26 seconds later, and after Bryant missed a 16-footer, Thomas provided the Suns with breathing room and a 3-point bomb with 1:41 left to cap a 9-0 run and give Phoenix a 116-109 lead.
This time, Bryant and the Lakers had no miracle answers. So the series heads back to Phoenix for the deciding game Saturday night, and the Suns will have Bell back as they attempt to become only the eighth team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.
“This is the kind of game you will remember for a long time, because of the way we won it and they way we stuck together,” Diaw said.
In regulation, the Suns took their final lead on two Nash free throws with 2:11 left to play, and played tight defense on the ensuing possession. But just before the shot clock expired, Bryant bolted for the deep corner and nailed a fallaway 23-footer to give the Lakers a 103-102 lead.
Thomas had two chances to put Phoenix back in front, but missed a 3-pointer and then a 9-footer with 44.9 seconds left.
But after Diaw blocked a Smush Parker shot, Thomas got one more chance and splashed a 3-pointer from the top of the circle with 6.3 seconds left to tie the score before Marion got a finger on Bryant’s game-winning attempt.
The Suns had more fouls (11) than rebounds in the first half, but still led 60-57 at intermission even though the Lakers made 24 of 38 shots from the field and had their way inside with seven offensive boards.
But the Suns’ defense forced 14 turnovers, turning them into 21 points, and the Lakers were whistled for 19 personal fouls — as Luke Walton and Kwame Brown were sent to the bench with three each.
Both teams came out sticking to their respective game plans — the Suns running hard and gunning open 3-pointers from the outside, the Lakers pounding inside for layups and dunks.
READ MORE IN TOMORROW'S TRIBUNE.