There is a tipping point in every playoff series, a moment when a team's fate hangs in the air. That moment came at halftime Wednesday for the Suns.
They trailed the Dallas Mavericks by seven points.
Their fast break had been slowed to a crawl, their hearts seemed to be in their throats, and summer vacation was calling collect.
The angst was apparent in every nook and cranny of America West Arena, including Phoenix's locker room.
“There was definitely a lot of anger,” Quentin Richardson said. “I wanted to punch the wall. We knew we were a better team than the way we were playing.”
Backup center Steven Hunter sensed something else in the quiet locker room: Fear.
“We knew how big a game it was,” Hunter said. “We're a young team, and I guess that showed. We played real timid.”
That was the word coach Mike D'Antoni used. He also told his players that if they played Suns basketball, fast and loose and confident, “nobody can beat us.”
Phoenix, 114, Dallas 108, and you can breathe again. At the very worst, the
Suns will host Game 7 Sunday. The series is in their hands.
“That was an incredible show of heart in the second half,” D'Antoni said. “It's not schemes, it's not going back and saying we have to do this. It was time for the guys to step up and put everything on the line. That's the reason why we won.”
Both teams knew what was at stake Wednesday. The Game 5 winner in a 2-2 series goes on to win the series 84 percent of the time.
But while the Mavericks seemed impervious to the pressure, the Suns played as if the executioner was about to tap them on the shoulder.
There was no flow or rhythm to their game. They passed up easy shots. They took bad shots. They scored just 48 points in the first half, the first time since April 9 they had scored fewer than 50 points in a half.
“We were kind of on our heels,” D'Antoni said. “We took a pretty good punch from them.”
And that's when you wondered: Does Amaré Stoudemire have a glass chin?
After an uninspired 15-point performance in Game 4, the betting line on Stoudemire was that he would play like a man possessed from the opening tip Wednesday.
Instead, Stoudemire was inactive and, it seemed, uninterested. He had just three points and three rebounds in the first quarter, and his three signature plays came when Erick Dampier blocked his slam dunk attempt, he was dunked on by Dirk Nowitzki, and he committed a silly foul as Nowitzki attempted a long 3-point shot with 18.8 seconds left in the half.
“I came out aggressive and tried to get going, but it just took me a little longer,” Stoudemire said.
The Mavericks bragged after their Game 4 win that they had solved Stoudemire. Run a second defender at him, force him to give up the ball and make other Suns the heroes.
But it wasn't what Dallas did in the first half Wednesday. It was what Stoudemire didn't do: Play like a man who had been named to the All-NBA second team earlier in the day.
TNT's Charles Barkley called Stoudemire a show pony at halftime, and while the criticism was harsh, it was justified.
Then Stoudemire shut Barkley up.
He had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the second half. He rediscovered the roll portion of the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash. He played with passion, he played smart, and one play in the half exemplified the change that came over him at halftime.
As Stoudemire went to the basket early in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki fouled him hard to the body. Somehow, Stoudemire absorbed the hit, hung in the air, and reloaded.
He made the bucket, hit the free throw for the 3-point play, and the Suns never looked back.
“Amaré stepped up after a slow start, but he went for 33 (points) and 18 (rebounds, a career playoff high), and for a 22-year-old, that's not bad,” D'Antoni said.
This series is far from over. It's back to Dallas for Game 6, and you should brace yourself for a Game 7.
But the Suns learned something about themselves Wednesday. They're not counter-punchers. They need to throw as many punches as they can, as fast as they can, and if a few miss, so what? They'll eventually connect.
“We got back on our feet in the second half,” D'Antoni said.
And off their deathbed.