If the Phoenix Suns are really going to redefine the nature of an NBA championship contender, we'll need to adapt the terminology. In the new world, the Suns gave the Lakers a beatdown in Game 4 of this first-round series.
No, they didn't send the Lakers back to the locker room on stretchers. The Suns just had their way, imposed their will. Flexed, if you will.
We're so obsessed with power we lose appreciation for the jab, the hit-and-run play or the five-yard slant. But all of those can be used to pound an opponent into submission. And the Lakers, down 3-1 in the series, are up against the ropes.
The Suns pummeled the Lakers with 23 Steve Nash assists, roughed them up with an Amare Stoudemire jump shot that bounced, bounced, bounced and fell in for a key three-point play, sucker-punched them with three three-point shots by James Jones. They walked out of a quieted Staples Center with a 113-100 victory.
When the Suns are dunking and shooting wide-open three-pointers, they make the game look as easy as batting practice. What you don't see is the difficulty behind it, the challenge to keep running even when you haven't touched the ball in three trips down the court, the effort it takes to get the steal or the rebound that starts the fastbreak. It's not that simple.
"The proof is that we didn't have it last game," Nash said.
In Game 3 it was the Lakers who had their way over the final three quarters and seemed to break the Suns' spirit. The Lakers were about stifling defense, offensive rebounds and Kobe Bryant getting all the way to the basket. The Suns were relegated to walking the ball upcourt and watching the shot clock tick down on them, abandoning the concept of ":07 seconds or less."
"It's something we have to reassert," Coach Mike D'Antoni said before Game 4. "I don't think it's a given that you just run all the time. We work at it and talk about it and show film and try to get them to do it. And sometimes the other team takes it away a little bit. It's not always, 'OK guys, run.' "
"It takes a big commitment," Nash said. "It takes a lot of energy and getting up for, and great conditioning."
The Suns gave the Lakers plenty of credit for outplaying them in Game 3. But they believe if they play at their best, they will prevail.
Sunday they got back to the defense on Bryant that worked in the first two games.
"When he was in the middle, we got to him a little bit quicker before he was able to finish it," forward Shawn Marion said.
Bryant shot 48% in Game 4, normally a good afternoon but not as stellar as his 58% in Game 3. He also had six turnovers, many the result of getting caught in the air with nowhere to go with the ball. The Suns forced Luke Walton into more turnovers (seven) than field goals and rebounds combined (six). And with Lamar Odom reluctant to shoot jumpers because of his hyperextended left elbow, the Suns could leave him alone outside and double-team elsewhere.
It was actually a bad sign for the Lakers when they led, 15-14, just over five minutes into the game. They were going back and forth with the Suns, on pace for a score in the 120s.
"We like that," D'Antoni said. "Even though we weren't up, we think that down the road that pays dividends."
The Lakers were actually better off trailing, 47-46, with two minutes remaining in the first half. The tempo had slowed, the game was closer to their preferred style.
Then Stoudemire was fouled on a jumper that bounced in, and the three-point play started an 11-5 run to close the half.
This time the Suns didn't relax with the lead. And when they're up it's just too tempting to play into their hands by shooting quick three-pointers. (The Lakers took 15 three-pointers in the second half.) The Suns, meanwhile, were just doing their thing.
"They provided quick outlets for Steve and they moved the ball accordingly and got good penetration off our traps," Bryant said. "We made some pretty good adjustments during the course of the game. It just wasn't enough ... they had too much firepower."
"It's a matter of us making a conscious effort to go out there and do what we do," Marion said. "Sometimes, we can get caught up in the bruiser game. But we can do the little things and sooner or later impose our will."
The question that has lingered ever since they brought in Nash to run D'Antoni's system three years ago is whether they can do it for the rest of the playoffs. It's a sore point in the locker room, and it set off Marion on Sunday.
"I don't understand," he said. "Everyone talks about that definition of up-tempo style. When you look at the way we play, we're just running harder than everybody else. That's all that is. Some people don't want to run. They don't want to run, they shouldn't be playing, then. It's just a matter of us going out there, running harder than them on more possessions than them.