PHOENIX – Steve Nash(notes) and Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) rose from their seats on the Phoenix Suns’ bench and walked to the scorer’s table. This was their time: fourth quarter, Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers’ desperately making one last push. This is when teams rely on their stars, and Nash and Stoudemire had been summoned to close out the game.
For a few moments, at least. As the two All-Stars stood at midcourt waiting for a stoppage in play, Goran Dragic(notes) split through the middle of the Lakers’ defense for a layup. Nash cheered his backup then looked down the sideline. Suns coach Alvin Gentry was calling him and Stoudemire back to the bench.
Not much need for them on this night.
The Suns beat the Lakers 115-106 to even the West finals at two games each, and Dudley and the rest of Phoenix’s plucky reserve unit deserves much of the credit. The Suns were led not by Nash and Stoudemire, but by a group of misfits that included an undrafted forward (Lou Amundson), an oft-injured Brazilian guard (Leandro Barbosa(notes)), a backup point guard from Slovenia (Dragic), a trade throw-in from the Charlotte Bobcats (Dudley) and another journeyman forward who just learned how to shoot a 3-pointer this season (Channing Frye(notes)).
The Suns naturally didn’t see this as a surprise. Their bench has played well most of the season, and was essential in the team’s second-round sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. Dudley and Frye have stretched defenses with their 3-point shooting while Dragic erupted for 26 points in the final 13 minutes of the Suns’ Game 3 victory over the Spurs, after which Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr likened him to Michael Jordan.
“We’ve got depth,” Nash said, “and we need to make that a staple of our success.”
That wasn’t the case through the first few games of this series. Frye and Dudley were a combined 2-for-12 from 3-point range in a Game 1 loss. Outside of Dudley’s 15 points, the rest of the Suns’ bench missed 14 of 17 shots in a Game 2 loss. Even in Phoenix’s Game 3 victory, none of the reserves made more than one shot.
No one took more heat than Frye. He made a team-best 172 3-pointers during the regular season while shooting a career-high 43.9 percent behind the arc, but had gone cold against the Lakers, missing 20 of 21 shots – including 18 in a row – before he connected on a 3-pointer in the second quarter.
Frye said his confidence didn’t waver during the slump, but it was hard to tell. He admitted he’d never weathered more criticism from the media and clearly heard the groans from the home fans in Game 3 when he kept missing shots. He received countless calls from friends offering advice and secluded himself in his house, leaving only to get snacks from a nearby convenience store.
After Tuesday’s performance, he likely didn’t have any trouble venturing out to get a postgame meal. He made half of his eight 3-point attempts while scoring 14 points.
“There was a lot of negativity on my shooting,” said Frye, who is playing for his third team in five seasons. “I was like, ‘You know what? It’s what [the media] has to do. It’s not like [the media] was personally attacking me.’ It’s my job to make shots. I was like, ‘Hey, go out there and have some fun and shoot the ball.”
The Suns’ bench totaled 34 points, eight assists and six 3-pointers in the first half, which eclipsed the starters’ production. The reserves added 20 points, 16 rebounds and three 3-pointers in the second half while outplaying most of the Lakers’ starters, including Kobe Bryant(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes).
Dudley says the Suns’ reserves beat the starters “40 percent of the time in practice,” so they weren’t surprised about what they did to the Lakers.
“If you read the paper clippings all day it’s supposed to be an easy series,” Dudley said. “Obviously, that’s why you play the game. I expected our bench to be better than their bench every time, even if Kobe’s out there or Gasol. That’s our job.”
Don’t expect it to change. The Suns’ reserves won’t be petitioning for starting jobs anytime soon. Not that Gentry would consider it, if they did.
“Hell no,” Gentry said. “I was born in the morning, but not yesterday morning.”
Frye dribbled out the final seconds of the Suns’ Game 4 victory then took his place alongside the rest of the reserves for a group interview with Turner Sports. Phoenix’s five misfits calmly answered the questions as if they had expected this improbably night all along.
“Sometimes,” Dudley said, “you need a little recognition for what you do.”