Suns defeat Lakers, 118-109, in Game 3


Reporting from Phoenix -- His tone was measured but the words were strong. They were tinged with enough edge to show that the criticism did sting him.

Make that stung.

Amare Stoudemire made it past tense with a singular performance against the Lakers on Sunday in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, scoring 42 points and taking 11 rebounds in the Suns’ 118-109 victory at US Airways Center.

It equaled his career-playoff high, and cut the Lakers’ lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1. This was the Lakers’ first loss in nine playoff games, going back to Game 4 of the first-round series against Oklahoma City last month.

The catalyst was Stoudemire, who was ripped for his lack of defense in the opening two games in Los Angeles, in particular, his pedestrian three rebounds in Game 1.

Center Robin Lopez had 20 points, which was easily his best showing since recently returning from a lingering back injury.

“I knew Amare would respond,” Suns’ Coach Alvin Gentry said. “He’s a competitor. He knows that he didn’t play well in L.A..”

Minutes after the victory, which was the Suns’ fifth consecutive home playoff win, Stoudemire talked about his aggressiveness in Game 3 and added, in response to a question about the criticism, that “my dedication to the game should never be questioned.”

He said he came out with a chip on his shoulder. Gentry joked that reporters should keep asking him questions about impending free agency.

“Did I agree with them?” Stoudemire said of the local critics. “Everybody’s going to have their opinions. . . . So I really can’t comment on their opinions.

“But from my standpoint, you can never question my determination. Again, that’s one of the reasons I persevered though injuries and continue to try to improve every single summer. My dedication to the game is at an all-time high.”

And just in time for the Suns, who can tie the series at 2-2 in Game 4 here on Tuesday night.

Phoenix seemed parked at the free-throw line all night, going 37 for 42 compared to the Lakers’ 16 for 20.

Just when the Lakers got back into the game, drawing within two points to start the final quarter, they unraveled in a sea of turnovers in the fourth.

They had six in the fourth and 17 in all.

“I thought a lot of those turnovers were unforced,” said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who earned a rare technical in the second quarter.

That was hardly the only reason they sputtered. They went through a fourth-quarter stretch of hitting just one field goal in six and a half minutes. And the Lakers offense – with the exception of a big third quarter from point guard Derek Fisher -- was largely limited to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Bryant and Gasol combined for 59 points, and Bryant, who had 19 points in the first half, played big minutes. Bryant had 36 points in 42-plus minutes of action.

Foul trouble meant the Lakers had to go small in the third quarter, by virtue of the woes entangling their big men, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

Odom and Bynum both picked up their fourth foul in the third quarter and, at one point, Ron Artest was playing power forward.

“[Odom] had really a game he doesn’t want to remember,” Jackson said. “He wants to go home and forget about this one.”

It was a rough night for Odom and Bynum. Odom, who had played so well and efficiently in the first two games, finished with 10 points and fouled out in the fourth quarter.

Bynum, who scored a mere two points, had talked Saturday about the prospect of facing Boston in the NBA Finals. This earned a rebuke in the pregame news conference from Coach Phil Jackson, who called the premature remarks about the Celtics a “brain (cramp).”

Of more concern is his ailing right knee. Jackson said Bynum was “ineffective” on Sunday and is considering keeping him out of the lineup for a game in this series.