Suns on verge of coming back from 3-1 deficit to win
The minute Game 6 was over Thursday night, Bell called Steve Nash in the locker room, screaming words that Nash said he really couldn't understand. It was elation mixed with relief because Bell knew his one-game suspension for bulldogging Kobe Bryant and throwing him to the court did not cost the Suns the series.
Instead, Phoenix is on the verge of becoming the eighth team in NBA playoff history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to advance.
The deciding Game 7 of this most intriguing of first-round matchups is Saturday night at US Airways Center in Phoenix.
That talk of an all-L.A. second-round series between the Clippers and Lakers will vanish like foothills in the smog if Phoenix wins.
The Lakers took their 3-1 series lead by slowing the pace, with Bryant getting his teammates involved rather than dominating the offense. The last two games, though, the Suns have scored 240 points. Bryant scored 50 Thursday night, but Phoenix won 126-118 in overtime.
"We really played awful defensively," Bryant said. "We were absolutely terrible."
The Lakers' Phil Jackson has never lost a first-round serie as a coach and is 44-0 in series in which his team has led.
He tried to describe the Lakers' situation in as positive terms as he could.
"I think there's more pressure on the home team sometimes in Game 7," Jackson said. "Sometimes you're more relaxed on the road. We feel OK about the game. We've won over there."
Still, the home team is 75-17 in Game 7s.
Nash, coming off a 32-point, 13-assist performance, said the players should cherish the moment when they play Saturday night.
"Game 7s are always kind of the pinnacle of our sport," he said. "To play an elimination game with both teams having their backs to the wall is when the game is most exciting, and hopefully all your hard work pays off."
Bryant averaged 42.5 points against the Suns in the regular season, and Phoenix won three of the games. But Suns coach Mike D'Antoni isn't buying the theory that when Kobe scores big, the Suns win.
"I don't quite believe it," D'Antoni said. "I think he's trying to figure out the game. If his guys can get it done, he lets them get it done. If they can't, maybe he's trying to do it. It's a fine line. It's not easy. That's something they have to figure out, not us."
Shawn Marion insisted he will be as energetic as always despite an exhausting 50 minutes of play Thursday night. He had 20 points and 12 rebounds, including the offensive rebound that led to Tim Thomas' game-tying 3-pointer with six seconds left in regulation. But D'Antoni said fans might not realize the defensive effort Marion put out, taking turns guarding either Bryant or Lamar Odom.
D'Antoni said his staff charted Marion with 20 deflections, as many as an entire team gets on a good night. Those deflections helped lead to 20 Lakers' turnovers, seven by Bryant.
Leandro Barbosa, replacing Bell in the lineup, gave the Lakers problems with his speed. The 23-year-old Brazilian finished with 22 points despite needing four stitches in his lip from an elbow by Bryant, but will go back to his normal reserve role Saturday night.
One of the biggest reasons for the turnaround in the series, D'Antoni said, is the improved play of Boris Diaw. With Diaw more aggressive, the Lakers have to choose between covering the perimeter or allowing the wiry Frenchman to drive to the hoop.
"We're not going in with the mind-set that we're going to shoot 3s," D'Antoni said. "It depends on what they give us. If they're not going to give us the 3s, that's fine, then Boris is going to score more inside. We're not just an all-outside team."
Like Nash, Bryant relishes the opportunity to play in such a big game. The only question is whether is less experienced teammates will share the enthusiasm and not get rattled by the noise and the importance of the contest.
"You just go after everything full bore, more so than usual," Bryant said. "The guys are ready, they'll be loose. We weren't even supposed to be in the playoffs, let alone beat the Suns. This is a great opportunity for us."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press