When it comes to the Phoenix Suns, Kobe Bryant is always ready to unleash his fury; fury over the team who eliminated his Lakers from the playoffs many years ago; fury over the guy who took back-to-back regular season MVPs that could have, should have been his. It doesn’t matter if the Suns personnel has changed, or the capabilities of the team have gone down since 2006. Mamba never forgets.
Now losers of four games in a row, the Phoenix Suns aren’t exactly contending for much this season, but doggone it, they can still play. Marcin Gortat, now a focal point of the typically outside shooting Phoenix offense, has given the Suns a presence inside. He led the team with 21 points on 9-16, including a thunderous dunk early in the game. He also pulled out 16 rebounds. The Suns bench, which includes former Laker Shannon Brown, contributed 46 points, and of course Steve Nash, despite scoring just 11 points, handed out 17 assists! They led by seven in the first half, got down by 20 points in the third quarter, and somehow made a run that cut the lead down to five with a whole four minutes left in the game. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers woke up from their daze just in time to finish.
In the last four minutes of the game, the Lakers outscored the Suns 16-9. No matter how hard Phoenix worked to go down fighting, even if it meant taking the loss but keeping those darn tacos away from the Staples Center faithful, there was Derek Fisher hitting a corner three, Pau Gasol going baseline and dunking it in, Matt Barnes hitting both free throws and Bryant rebounding the Suns’ final attempt to disappoint the taco-loving crowd.
Mamba Remembers – The last time the Suns came to town, Bryant lit them up with 48 points. Tonight he eased up on them and chipped in “just” 36. He was an efficient 14-25 from the field, including 1-2 from downtown and 7-9 from the charity stripe. He also grabbed nine rebounds, handed out six assists, had four steals and sure, why not, a block. He did just about everything tonight. He shot left-handed floaters like he’d been doing them all his life. Each time he was doubled (which was often, and “often” doesn’t even begin to describe how much he drew in the defense), he sent passes to cutting teammates like Matt Barnes, tossed lobs over his shoulder at Andrew Bynum, sent a bounce pass to a wide open Gasol, who then found Andrew Bynum at the hoop for an easy basket. His three turnovers aside (it certainly wasn’t the seven that Nash collected), Bryant did everything in this game that he possibly could to help his team, and it worked.
Bench-ful – The Laker bench was still outscored by the Suns’ bench 46-34, but that they even scored 34 points on 65% shooting is significant. 34 points is almost a third of the final score, which is a good chunk of contribution, and everyone who hit the floor did contribute significantly. Tying the team high leader in assists with Bryant, Steve Blake handed out six assists himself, with Troy Murphy adding three more. When Murphy is scoring the way that he has the last few games, it’s not any wonder why Josh McRoberts and Jason Kapono have had so many DNP days. Murphy is able to spread the floor with this perimeter shooting, and since the reserves typically play with Bynum, who is constantly doubled, shooters have to be ready to receive passes from him out there. The sharper the shooter, the better, and Murphy is shooting 43% from downtown this season – not bad. This Laker group of reserves may never be the top scoring bench in the league, but they’ve finally been doing, lately, what is expected of them. As noted before, Steve Blake is an integral part of this reserve unit, which explains their lack of production when he was gone. Blake’s a veteran who organizes the floor, a key contributor to the guys on the pine.
Matt Barnes – Reaching his season high, Barnes scored 17 points on 6-7, including a corner three and a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line. Naturally, Barnes led the team in +/- with a +15, and rightfully so. The man is always moving; always knows when to dive and score; always so active without the ball. With double teams galore surrounding Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant, there is ALWAYS a man open and tonight – actually, most nights – Barnes took advantage. He’s a bona fide diveman, always keen on where the ball is and where it’s going.
Simply Board – 52-36 advantage on the glass – the Lakers, led by Gasol’s 13 rebounds and Bynum’s 14, were outrebounded 20-17 in the first half, which means that in the final 24 minutes, the Suns were outboarded 35-16! The Lakers’ offense may be a source of jokes on talk radio, but their ability to work the glass remains an upside on which they can hang their hats. Top of the league in this category.
Paint Point – Known as s predominantly jump-shooting team, Phoenix doesn’t get too much work inside, even with Nash’s ability to penetrate and Gortat’s presence close to the rim. The Lakers outscored Phoenix 54-38 from that painted area, only attempting 11 shots from behind the arc and converting on five. The Lakers won this game because they actually played to their strengths, taking advantage of those high percentage shots and then getting 24 free throw attempts as a result.
Turnover Town – Phoenix – 17, Lakers – 20. 37 turnovers combined in one game?! Was it because each team was so active defensively? The Suns took 13 steals and the Lakers took 12. Or did each team get those steals because the other was so careless? Chicken? Egg? Hello? With the Suns scoring 16 fast break points, and the Lakers doing about the same with 14, the tempo of the game was obviously more fast-paced than the Lakers typically care for. Bottom line, however, 37 turnovers makes for one sloppy evening.
Defensive lapses – The Lakers know, despite the Phoenix Suns sitting on a 12-18 record before this game, that their opponents can still score in bunches, which is why relaxing after building a 20-point lead in the third quarter is so frustrating to watch. After reaching an 83-63 advantage with just three minutes left in the third quarter, the Lakers scored just four more points to Phoenix’s 10, and continued to concede slowly to the Suns until the lead dwindled to just 95-90. Large leads that are built anytime before the fourth quarter are just wasted on these Lakers if they can’t figure out a way to take advantage of such an advantage.
Pau Gasol – Four points on 1-4, five rebounds and two steals – that was Gasol’s stat line in the first half. Maybe the trade rumors that continue to circulate are affecting him. Maybe he’s just letting Bynum take on the load. Or maybe he’s Samson and that new haircut took with hit his strength. Who knows, but something was clearly bothering Gasol tonight. He still managed to attain 10 points and 13 rebounds, a barely double-double, if you will, and he even handed out four assists, but he was missing layups, couldn’t convert on shots at the rim after grabbing offensive rebounds. It could have just been an off night, though. Everyone has one of those, even Mr. Consistency.
It was a collective win for the Lakers tonight, and the Suns will try to exact some revenge on Sunday when they welcome the purple and gold into their arena. For tonight, however, the Lakers stand at a dominating 13-2 at home. If only they could take this show on the road.