After a 107-88 home court Game 5 win over the injury-thinned Portland Trailblazers, their third double-digit victory in this first-round Western Conference Playoffs match-up, the Phoenix Suns will head north to the Rose Garden looking to close out the series. And as plenty of sharp-eyed cats have noted, they largely have their bench -- headlined by Channing Frye (20 points on 7-for-11 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, 0 turnovers in just under 27 minutes) and Jared Dudley (19 points on 6-for-10 shooting, including 5-for-9 from three-point land, in less than 25 minutes) -- to thank for putting them in position to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
But lost beneath the showroom sheen of the raining threes and the absurd +88 plus-minus that the second-unit collective of Frye, Dudley, Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson turned in on Monday night is one pivotal sequence, spanning roughly one full quarter of game time, that helped turn the night in the Suns' favor and send Portland home reeling.
It started with 5:42 left in the first quarter, when Frye became the first Sun off the bench, coming in for Jarron Collins with the Suns down 23-11 after a game-opening Portland barrage. Dudley followed for Grant Hill two minutes later with the score 25-14. By quarter's end, they'd combined for 7 points and 3 rebounds, and Phoenix trailed 28-27 going into the second, which began with Dragic and Barbosa spelling Steve Nash and Jason Richardson in the backcourt.
When Amundson replaced Amar'e Stoudemire, the last remaining Suns starter, about a minute-and-a-half into the Q, putting the entire second unit on the floor with the Suns down 30-29. Here's what happened on the Suns' next nine possessions:
1. Frye rebounds and puts back a Dragic three-point miss, putting Phoenix up 31-30;
2. After LaMarcus Aldridge answers with a hook, Dragic draws Brandon Roy's third foul, sending him to the bench, and hits one of two free throws to tie the game at 32;
3. After another Aldridge bucket, Dragic draws Juwan Howard's third foul, sending him to the bench, and hits both FTs to tie the game at 34;
4. Dragic draws another foul, this time on Dante Cunningham, and hits both FTs to put Phoenix up 36-34;
5. Frye answers a Cunningham dunk by making a hook, putting Phoenix up 38-36;
6. After Cunningham turns the ball over on an offensive foul, Barbosa drains a jumper to extend the lead to 4;
7. After a Cunningham basket, Amundson rebounds and puts back a Frye three-point miss, putting Phoenix up 42-38;
8. Barbosa draws a foul on Rudy Fernandez and hits one of two FTs to push the lead to 5 (Amundson also rebounded Barbosa's missed FTA and got Leandro a look at a three-pointer, which missed);
9. After Marcus Camby splits two FTs, Barbosa misses another three-pointer before an Andre Miller turnover brings us to a full timeout at 5:39, with Phoenix leading 43-39.
It might not have been the most thrilling stretch -- it certainly didn't feature any moments on an excitement par with Camby's big first-quarter follow dunk or Miller's slick alley-oop to Jerryd Bayless -- but it mattered in the way that Big Things matter come playoff time.
First, it's obviously valuable to turn a one-point deficit into a four-point lead while buying your starters half-a-quarter of rest (or, in the case of Hill, who departed with 3:51 left in the first, nearly a full quarter). Secondly, despite being outmanned against offensive performers like Roy, Aldridge and Miller, the second unit's active defense (especially the perimeter coverage of Dudley) and rebounding (especially Frye and Amundson) kept Portland from taking advantage of the ones-against-twos match-ups and regaining the flow they had in their hot start.
Thirdly, Dragic's persistent penetration knocked both Roy and Howard off the floor, making it more difficult for Portland's star to find a rhythm in just his second game back from arthroscopic knee surgery and putting a bit more pressure on the Blazers' already injury-taxed frontcourt rotation. All told, the subs drew five Blazer defensive fouls in that second-quarter stretch before Hill, Stoudemire, Nash and Richardson re-entered the game, putting the starters in good position to get into the bonus if they continued attacking; as it turned out, the Suns only drew one more whistle before halftime. Still, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry must be pretty psyched about being able to hand the keys to a group of reserves that can not only keep things from getting out of hand, but also get you a lead, hang onto it and put the opposition in foul trouble. Interestingly enough, it was Frye who got to the line for two with less than a minute left in the quarter; he and Dudley scored the Suns' last five points of the frame to push the Phoenix lead to 10 points and knock the wind out of the Blazers' sails before halftime.
To be fair to Portland, it's not like that 10-minute run of first-half bench contributions put them out of commission -- Phoenix didn't totally pull away until later. But it did provide the kind of prolonged, fine-print, under-the-radar boost that solidified the momentum swing from the Blazers' white-hot start to the Suns' eventual 19-point blowout. And with Roy at less than 100 percent and Portland's season on the line come Thursday night, you've got imagine that Blazers head coach Nate McMillan's somewhat less than thrilled to know that, when everything's clicking, Phoenix can effect a full line-change without missing a stride.