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Thursday, May 20, 2010
Gentry, Suns are open to suggestions

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Alvin Gentry was chuckling at himself as he stepped off the post-game dais, maybe because he instantly realized how much desperation and exasperation he was about to cram into one farewell line.

"I'm open for suggestions," Gentry said on his way out of the interview room late Wednesday night, fresh from watching his Phoenix Suns get absolutely shredded again.

"Even from the media."

Sooner than the Suns ever imagined after their vengeful sweep of San Antonio, they've been reduced to mock hopelessness and self-deprecating humor in the Western Conference finals. In a Game 2 that Gentry genuinely believed was steal-able after a series-opening rout, Phoenix managed to turn Kobe Bryant into a passer, dared Ron Artest to take those corner 3s that make Phil Jackson cringe and somehow erased a double-digit deficit with Grant Hill playing power forward.

It still wasn't close to enough.

Not when the Lakers were zipping the ball around so crisply that they generated tangible offensive contributions from no less than six players not named Kobe.

Not when the Suns, so desperate for some sustained offensive flow against L.A.'s disruptive length, had to go ultra-small to rally from 14 points down and thus played much of the second half with the defensively challenged Amare Stoudemire as their only big man.

Not when the Lakers could cap that supreme display of ball movement by letting Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom take turns pounding Phoenix down low in the fourth quarter, leading to a 124-112 triumph that staked the defending champs to a seemingly untouchable 2-0 series lead.

The pleas for help weren't just coming from Gentry after Phoenix tried fronting the Lakers' post players, double-teaming, mixing in spells of zone D and flat-out leaving the likes of Artest and Jordan Farmar in its determination to limit L.A.'s big names.

"It's a tough one," Steve Nash said when asked what the Suns can try next. "They're bigger."

"Every time we tried to make an adjustment to slow them down," Gentry said, "they go somewhere else."

After the Suns avenged years of Spurs-inflicted torment with four inspired games in the previous round, it's a major downer to hear them sound so helpless already, no matter how far they've exceeded expectations just by getting to the West finals. With three of the four Round 2 matchups ending as sweeps, Orlando losing the first two games of the East finals at home and Phoenix's inability to produce any sort of sustained D after all the chatter about how much better defensively this group is than Mike D'Antoni's teams, let's face it: This postseason has gone flat.

There is also little question that the Suns' problems in Game 2 began when Stoudemire branded Odom's Game 1 eruption as "lucky." Any hope that the Lakers would be overconfident, cold or flat themselves after Monday's 128-107 cruise was all but extinguished by Stoudemire's jab, as Odom's second straight double-double -- 17 points and 11 rebounds in support of Gasol's 29 points and Bryant's 21 points and career playoff-high 13 assists -- confirms.

The Suns, though, tried to rally around their under-fire power forward when Wednesday's clinic was over. Stoudemire could only muster a quiet 18 points and six rebounds in response to the roasting he got at the other end from Gasol (14 decisive points in the fourth quarter) and Odom (eight in the fourth) -- at a time when he's supposed to be making a max-contract drive on the national stage with free agency just over a month away -- but Hill and Suns swingman Jared Dudley insisted that Stoudemire shouldn't be singled out.

With Channing Frye struggling too badly from the field (1-for-13 for the series) to stay on the floor and Robin Lopez just returning from a back problem that sidelined him for more than a month, Stoudemire didn't have the bigger sidekick he needs on the front line to occasionally bail him out.

"A couple times we left Amare on an island," Hill said.

Added Dudley: "Since the All-Star break, he's been the best power forward in the game. We all should get blamed. Everybody was scoring [for the Lakers]. It's team defense in this league."

Dudley was scarcely exaggerating. The Lakers really did get a contribution from almost everyone in home gold, shooting nearly 58 percent from the field (again) to render Dudley's perfect 5-for-5 shooting from 3-point range and the Suns' other two breakout performances immaterial.

Hill's 23 points marked his best offensive performance in a playoff game since -- no misprint -- 1999. Jason Richardson, meanwhile, rumbled for 27 points after struggling against L.A. all season. The Suns, though, eventually wilted in the fourth quarter thanks to six turnovers and all the size they were giving away.

Artest had 15 of his 18 points at halftime when the Phoenix plan to leave him open -- and send a last-ditch rotation at him if the Lakers actually sent the ball Artest's way -- backfired completely. Farmar threw in three 3s -- including one biggie in the fourth right between two momentum-sapping Nash turnovers -- to supply a helpful 11 points in just 14 minutes. Andrew Bynum contributed a useful 13 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes before foul trouble, not that bad knee, sent him back to the bench. And Bryant merely posted the best assist game in the playoffs by a Laker since a certain Magic Johnson had a 13-dime game against Houston in 1996.

All of the above neutralized Phoenix's well-chronicled mojo when Richardson scores at least 20 points. The Suns dropped to 31-5 when that happens, losing for the first time in Richardson's six 20-point games in the playoffs.

So they'll try to focus on the rally from 11 points down into a 90-90 tie entering the final period. They'll spend the three days off before Sunday's Game 3 back in Phoenix clinging to the belief that role players like Frye and Goran Dragic will play a lot better at US Airways Center. Dudley even dredged up the first-round memory of Oklahoma City winning Game 3 and Game 4 at home against the Lakers, after L.A. won the first two at home, as a means to claim that the Suns aren't done.

"You saw what the Thunder did," Dudley said. "That's our mindset."

Yet these aren't the same Lakers that were dragged to six games in the first round. Not when Bryant is such a willing passer. Not when he's moving as smoothly as he has for weeks and suddenly surrounded by teammates oozing confidence.

"I think we've found a number of ways to score," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, sealing the evening's Understatement Award.

"He's not going to force things," Gentry said soberly of Bryant. "He doesn't do that any more.

"Maybe we'll decide that we'll let Kobe get 80 and try to [shut down all] the other guys."

More desperation. More exasperation. No more than two or three games left in this series unless the Suns quickly get taller … or the Lakers' effort, focus or sharpness shrinks. Drastically.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.