"Truth is generally the best vindication against slander"-- Phoenix Suns locker-room whiteboard, prior to Game 3
Across this great nation Sunday night a mighty exhalation whooshed forth from sports bars, family dens and man caves as Amar'e Stoudemire barreled to the basket again and again, dunking and twisting and flipping in shots, for finally it looked as if we might be able to see a compelling conference finals game and -- dare to dream -- even a compelling series. In the end, Stoudemire finished with 42 points and 11 rebounds. He even took a charge. This was the Amar'e who terrorized interior defenders in his best moments this season, who finishes at the rim better than just about anyone in the league and, it must be noted, is fishing for a free agent contract in the offseason. And on this night at least, he indeed brought the truth. Slander was seen slinking off into the night.
But to credit this victory solely to Amar'e is to overlook the contributions of the player who may be the true x-factor in this series, not to mention one of the more entertaining defenders to watch in the league: Robin Lopez. The Suns center, best known for his flying wedge of follicular ouptut and his twin brother, scored 20 points on 8-10 shooting in 29 minutes and had the best plus-minus ratio (+19) of any player in the game, including Stoudemire. What's more, The Fropez -- as one ingenious Tweeter called him, in response to True Hoop'scall for nicknames -- displayed a heretofore unheralded repertoire of moves. He swished 15-footers. He hit a spinning righty hook. He sunk a twirling lefty hook(!). And he dunked, hard and often. One NBA front office exec, upon seeing this, texted me after the game. "Are we sure it isn't Brook in a wig?"
Yes, it is a popular joke. Coming out of Stanford, Brook Lopez was the offensive player, and better prospect, while Robin was the defensive specialist (though I do remember talking to one scout who was higher on Robin at the time because he was the rare 7-footer who played with an almost-manic defensive intensity). However, as Suns coach Alvin Gentry pointed out after the game, Robin displayed a scoring touch earlier this season, before the back injury that sidelined him until the start of this series. It's just that no one noticed it, in part because there are so many other things to notice about Lopez. The hair, of course, but also the mannerisms: He lopes up and down the court, hunched forward, taking great strides, and you half expect the earth to shake with each footfall. He grimaces and stares and can look so focused as to appear, well, a tad unstable. He roars and slaps fives and fist pumps (most noticeably last night after Jason Richardson hit a three in the fourth quarter to put Phoenix up 98-92, sending Lopez into a paroxysm of joy). And he plays as if every rebound might be his last, which is the kind of thing that makes coaches swoon. Just imagine, for example, if Amare played with Lopez's defensive intensity.
In Game 3, Lopez will be remembered for his (relative) scoring explosion and getting into a near-skirmish with Derek Fisher -- afterward he claimed the elbow was unintentional and said of Fisher, "he's a very tenacious player, I admire that," -- but it was the little plays that showed his value. Fighting for an offensive rebound and drawing a foul on Kobe Bryant. Fouling out Lamar Odom on an awkward pass near the free-throw line. Rotating and filling gaps on defense while anchoring the Suns' zone (the success of which surprised even Gentry, who said that when the team ran through the defense in preparation for this game, "to be honest, it was the worst it's ever been.")
So valuable was Lopez that he even took grief when trying to get a rest. Late in the third quarter, while running down on offense, he looked at the bench and tugged on his jersey, asking to come out. Granted his wish at the next stoppage in play, he walked over and caught a stern glare from assistant coach Bill Cartwright, Lopez's mentor. "My dad worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week for 20 years," Cartwright intoned in his husky voice. "And you can't even put in two hours' work?" Lopez, still out of breath, nodded. "I know, I'm sorry," he said. " I won't do it again." Then he smiled and rearranged Cartwright's tie. Said Lopez after the game: "Me and Bill have a different kind of relationship. When I start to hear that story, I know exactly where it's going."
And, I suppose, most of us think we know exactly where these Western Conference finals are going. The Lakers will come back to win Game 4, then close it out in L.A. in 5, or maybe in Phoenix in 6. Then again, who knows? After all, how often does Kobe have a great team game -- not individual -- and the Lakers lose (Bryant finished with 36 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists on 13-of-24 shooting)? And how often has Phoenix won this season without getting anything from its bench marksmen (Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa combined to go 0-11 on threes)? Of course, one could also ask how often Robin Lopez scores 20 points, but that's not the point.
Rather, the point is that, at least for a day or two, we can entertain the possibility of some drama in these playoffs. So enjoy it while you can, even if Lopez isn't. Seriously, the poor guy has one of the best games of his life at a crucial time and then, when reporters want to talk about it afterward, he appears painfully uncomfortable. So he answers in short, staccato bursts of clichés and credits his teammates relentlessly. Asked by a TV crew about his offensive output, he starts his answer with, "We really came out with a team focus tonight." When a newspaper reporter presses about whether he surprised even himself, he talks about how he'd never have been so open if Steve Nash didn't get him the ball and Amare hadn't drawn the defense, and so on. Still, dutifully, Lopez stays until the end, the last player in the Phoenix locker room. Finally, he gets up to leave but someone else comes up with a cell phone. "Robin," says the guy holding the phone, "It's a radio show with Pooh Richardson." Robin nods, takes the phone, sits back down.
"Hi," he says, then pauses, listening. "Thanks ... It was a team focus tonight."