LOS ANGELES (AP)—Steve Nash did what he usually does—only better than he’s ever done it.
Nash had a career-high 23 assists—one shy of the NBA playoff record—to go with 17 points, and the Suns raced to a 113-100 victory over the Lakers on Sunday to move within one win of advancing to the second round.
Amare Stoudemire had 27 points and a career playoff-high 21 rebounds for the run-and-gun Suns, who vowed to speed things up after a lethargic performance in Game 3.
“We just wanted to be in the right spots and just wanted to be a lot more aggressive,” Nash said. “I just felt like I was going to be more aggressive, put the onus on myself to make plays.”
The Suns averaged an NBA-leading 110.2 points during the regular season, scoring at least 100 in all but 14 of their 82 games and less than 90 only twice. After losing Game 3 to the Lakers 95-89, coach Mike D’Antoni and his players knew they had to quicken the pace.
Did they ever.
“The speed of the game was ours,” D’Antoni said. “They surprised us with their intensity in Game 3. Today wasn’t a surprise. We have our system, and we ran it pretty good today. We had 34 assists on 41 baskets and that’s because of our spacing. That’s what we do—we’ve done it all year.”
D’Antoni said had the Suns shot the ball like they usually do, Nash might have had 30 assists.
Teammate Raja Bell went his coach one better.
“If we shot the ball well, he could have had 35,” Bell said. “We run when he runs. He’s the engine that can really rev us up and get us in transition.”
Nash left the game to a mixed reception with 1:02 remaining and the outcome long since decided. Magic Johnson and John Stockton share the single-game playoff assist record—Johnson doing so for the Lakers against Phoenix in 1984, and Stockton accomplishing the feat against the Lakers for Utah four years later.
“Probably the two best point guards to play the game,” said Nash, who noticed Johnson in his courtside seat during the game. “Not a shabby collection to learn from. I grew up watching them and in many ways wanted to emulate them.”
The 33-year-old two-time NBA MVP entered the fourth quarter with 20 assists, but fell one short of the record.
“It wasn’t meant to be, and that’s all right,” he said. “There’s two guys who had gotten more than me, and they deserve it.”
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Wednesday night in Phoenix, where the Suns won the first two games. A sixth game, if necessary, would be Friday night at Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 31 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, but scored only three points in the fourth quarter. Lamar Odom added 19 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, and Maurice Evans and Smush Parker scored 11 points each for the Lakers, who committed 20 turnovers to 15 for Phoenix.
“They just had too much firepower for us today,” Bryant said. “You knew they were going to step up and respond to the challenge.”
Outrebounded 44-35 in Game 3, the Suns had a 44-39 advantage in this game.
“We made a conscious effort to control the paint defensively,” Stoudemire said. “It was very physical. I’ve got a few war wounds I’ve got to take with me, but you do whatever it takes to get wins in the playoffs.”
The Suns outscored the Lakers 10-4 to finish the third period for an 85-71 lead, and scored seven straight points to extend their advantage to 93-77.
Two baskets by Boris Diaw and two free throws by Nash made it 105-85 before Odom scored five points during an 8-0 run that made it a 12-point game with 3:46 remaining. But the Lakers weren’t able to get closer than 11 points after that.
“They were a better team than we were today. They were a little quicker at everything,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We have to get ourselves geared up and we’ll have another chance to bring this game back here to L.A. on Friday.”
Nash had 15 assists in the first half to match the NBA playoff record set by Johnson and equaled by Doc Rivers. The Suns led at halftime 58-51.
Nash’s previous career playoff high in assists was 17, and his regular-season high is 22—three shy of Kevin Johnson’s franchise record. … Nash has had at least 10 assists in 37 playoff games—seventh on the NBA’s career list. He had been tied with Oscar Robertson. … Jackson-coached teams have trailed a series 2-0 six times including this year, and have come back to win twice. Entering these playoffs, only 11 of 193 teams rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of seven series. … In Game 4 of the teams’ first-round series last year, also played on a Sunday at Staples Center, Bryant scored at the end of regulation and overtime to give the Lakers a 99-98 victory and a 3-1 lead. The Suns won the next three games including a 121-90 blowout in Game 7.