A look at the lousy quarter that gave the Suns new life

Is it blasphemous to suggest that the Phoenix Suns won ugly on Sunday night?

Sure, their 118-109 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals had plenty of debonair flourishes — stuff like the brute beauty of Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) on a steamroll drive to a dominant 42-point performance and the uncanny knack Steve Nash(notes) shows for threading the needle with a bounce pass en route to 15 dimes. As Mr. Dwyer wrote this morning, Phoenix played just about "the perfect game" to get on the board in this best-of-seven series.

Part of that perfect game, though, was grinding their way to a lead in a game-shifting second quarter that was actually pretty darn gross, all things considered.

In Game 3's second frame, Phoenix and Los Angeles combined for just 40 points — 15 fewer points than the series' previous single-quarter low of 55, set in the third quarter of Game 1, and 20.2 points below the average total for a quarter in the series so far — on just 14-for-41 shooting, which my TI-83 tells me shakes out to 34.1 percent. That figure includes a robust 1-for-12 mark from behind the three-point line (8.3 percent).

The flow of the game was fairly choppy, too, owing in part to the fact that the quarter saw more turnovers (eight) than assists (seven), as well as 12 total fouls whistled. Add in the awkward-to-watch continued self-destruction of Channing Frye(notes) (0-for-4 in the quarter, including three misses from deep) and the definitive proof that we weren't going to see Lamar Odom(notes) get lucky (0-for-5 from the floor, 0-for-2 from the free-throw line, two turnovers, two fouls), and there really wasn't a whole lot to get excited about from a game-enjoyment perspective.

On the offensive end, at least.

As I'm sure you've read in any number of ball-talking spaces Monday, the Suns made a strategic defensive shift early in the second quarter to a 2-3 zone look that definitely gummed up L.A.'s works. According to the play-by-play breakdown, the Lakers shot 7-for-20 from the floor and 1-for-6 on three-point attempts in the quarter, turning the ball over six times and having difficulty getting themselves going for the first time since about midway through their opening-round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Lakers' second-quarter shot chart illustrates why they struggled, and the answer is one to which KD alluded this morning: They settled. When they worked the ball into the paint against the 2-3, they had great success, hitting 6-of-8 field-goal attempts. But too often, they fell in love with the first jumper they saw, and in the desert heat, they hit their first concerted cold-snap of the series, shooting 1-12 from outside the paint in the quarter. The Lakers had scored 30 or more points in six of the previous nine quarters in the Western Conference finals, and hadn't scored less than 25 in any of them. In the second quarter on Sunday, coming off a 32-point burst to start the game, they managed only 15.

Handed their first real opening to land a serious body blow to the defending champs, the Suns didn't exactly seize the opportunity with great aplomb. They shot even more poorly than their counterparts, missing 14 of their 21 field-goal attempts in the second quarter and clanging all six of their looks from downtown. The Phoenix bench, much lauded for its ability to give coach Alvin Gentry's starters a break without losing any momentum, was hapless, shooting a collective 2-for-10 and failing to capitalize on the Lakers' struggles. (On the plus side, they only turned it over twice.)

So, if they were just as awful on offense as the Lakers were, how did the Suns turn a 32-29 deficit entering the second quarter into a 54-47 lead heading into halftime? At the charity stripe.

The Lakers' persistence in firing over the top of the 2-3 meant they weren't driving. And chances are, if you're not going to the cup, you're not creating contact, which means you're not shooting free throws. Phoenix, on the other hand, did get to the line, leading to the biggest difference in the quarter.

The Lakers missed all three free throws they attempted in the second quarter, while the Suns hit all nine they hoisted, including back-to-back trips by Grant Hill(notes) and Robin Lopez(notes) on ill-advised Laker fouls with less than a minute left in the half that pushed the lead from three to seven. The Lakers had ample opportunity to turn the tide back in their favor over the next two quarters, but with the exception of an Odom free throw that gave them a 90-89 lead with 8:47 left in the game, they never got back over the hump. (The Lakers enjoyed that lead for all of 20 seconds, by the way, before Jared Dudley(notes) hit a layup to put Phoenix back on top 91-90.)

Obviously, the slowdown couldn't have come at a better time for the Suns; even more obviously, the fact that Amar'e beasted for 42 and 11 and routinely crushed Pau Gasol(notes) on those face-up drives had a lot to do with Phoenix putting up 118 on the Lakers and ending L.A.'s eight-game winning streak. But the stretch that swung the game came, frankly, with both teams playing like garbage on offense — it's just that the Suns stunk a little less than the Lakers did.

Maybe that mitigates any feelings of dread that might be floating among Lakers fans Monday — would you bet against Phil Jackson figuring out how to attack a 2-3 zone in time for Game 4, or on every Laker not named Gasol again finding themselves in the freezer for 12 straight minutes? (Even Kobe Bryant(notes) struggled a bit in his second-quarter run, going 2-for-5 from the floor, missing two 3-pointers and turning the ball over twice.) Then again, what if Phoenix's bench, playing looser now that the goose egg is off the board, actually starts hitting shots in front of a raucous US Airways Center crowd?

Whichever way Game 4 swings, it's a good bet that both locker rooms are hoping their side's offense looks far prettier than it did in the second quarter of Game 3.

(video via NBA Playbook)

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