"The bench was phenomenal," Nash said. "They were intelligent. They made good decisions. And, you know, they were easily the difference tonight."
Everywhere you looked, a Sun was producing. Channing Frye, Mr. 1-for-20 coming into Game 4, knocked down four of his eight three-point attempts to finish with 14 points. Jared Dudley chipped in 11 points, including a pair of momentum shifting three-pointers. Leandro Barbosa (14 points), Goran Dragic (eight), even Louis Amundson (seven) joined the party. The Suns' second unit accounted for 54 of Phoenix's 115 points, 34 more than the Laker reserves, and turned a slim one-point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter into a robust seven-point advantage before Nash finally tore off his warm-ups with three-plus minutes left. When Stoudemire checked in for Amundson a few seconds later, a fan in the lower bowl popped out of his seat and bellowed for Suns coach Alvin Gentry to "get Amar'e out."
"The [second team] really believe in themselves," Gentry said. "You know, the thing that kind of hurt them the most is that they have been coming into games where we have been down nine, down 11 and they play pretty good, but it's an uphill battle for them. Tonight they came in, tie score, and I thought played about as well as they could play."
Watching all this unfold from his seat, Suns GM Steve Kerr couldn't help but smile. When Kerr handed Nash a two-year extension in 2009 and re-signed Grant Hill last summer, he envisioned a scenario where the team's veterans would have enough left in the tank to push Phoenix into the playoffs, giving his core of young players what he thought would be valuable postseason experience. After Hill re-signed, the two sat down and discussed ways Hill could help smooth the transition to a new era in Suns basketball.
"[Kerr] wanted us to mentor these guys," Hill said. "Show them how to do things the right way, how to be professional. It helped that he brought in guys with high character who bought in to how we want to play and brought a lot of enthusiasm. They make it fun to come to work every day."
Fun, and also competitive. Phoenix practices are spirited wars between the first and second units, filled with plenty of trash talk -- mostly from Dudley -- who kids Stoudemire about his jump shot ("I tell him it's broke," said Dudley) and begs him to go left. Dudley even estimates that the second team wins 40 percent of the 5-on-5 games against the first squad.
"He said that?" asked Hill. "No way. Maybe 25 percent."
"25 [percent] sounds about right," said Jason Richardson. "That's just Jared trying to stir things up."
It's the confidence that defines them. Frye says the Suns subs try to "push the tempo more" and give an opponent a different look than the one they saw with the starters. Dragic isn't Nash -- he's more scorer than distributor -- but at times he's able to more than capably fill in for him. In Game 3 of the second round series against San Antonio, Dragic blitzed the Spurs for 21 fourth-quarter points to open up a blowout win. On Tuesday, Dragic dished out three assists in the final quarter that helped balloon the Suns' lead.
Dudley, a slippery small forward with a savvy perimeter game, hopes Hill plays for "two or three more seasons" but admits that he is ready for the future.
"I view myself as the future here," said Dudley. "No one wants to be on seven or eight teams. This is a good situation that we have here."
The Suns, in fact, are a team filled with mutual admiration. When the starters are playing well, the bench players are the first to praise them, and vice versa. When Gentry tried to insert Richardson and Robin Lopez in the fourth quarter, both suggested the coach ride their backups a little longer.
"The bench has formed an identity," said Hill. "You can just see the chemistry is there. They have been good all year but it's great to see them come together in the playoffs."
Indeed, the bench is the reason the Suns are still in this series. In the first and third quarters of Game 4, played primarily but the first teams, L.A. outscored Phoenix 52-44. In the second and fourth, the Suns bench outscored the Lakers 71-54. No Sun was able to contain Kobe Bryant (38 points, 10 assists), but Phoenix's reserves spaced the Lakers out offensively and forced them into tough outside shots (9-28 from three point range).
"They stepped up and we're going to keep needing them to step up," said Hill. "We have three more games left in this series. We need them to play like this in every one."