Kobe Bryant drove into the lane, and in doing so, sucked the Suns’ defense right in with him, leaving an unattended Ron Artest standing in the corner. Bryant passed the ball and Artest stood there for two seconds, maybe wondering if he should shoot it or pass it on. He held the ball for what seemed like an eternity, with everyone on the floor and everyone at U.S. Airways Arena looking on. So with feet planted right outside the three-point line, Artest shot the wide open opportunity and swish. Lakers 97, Suns 91 with just over a minute and a half to go and Phoenix with a timeout. Artest made his way to the Laker bench, the arms of Bryant wrapped around his shoulders. About 25 seconds later, Artest grabbed an offensive rebound which resulted in a Bryant assist on a Derek Fisher jumper that gave the Lakers their 99 points, enough to win for the second time in a row on Phoenix’s home floor.
With Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkgolu out and Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mikael Pietrus in, the Phoenix Suns are not the same team the Lakers fought in last year’s Western Conference Finals and they are certainly not the same team who burned the Lakers with 22 threes at Staples Center earlier this season. One thing remains constant, however, and that’s that Steve Nash runs this show.
The Suns did keep the game close tonight, getting behind by as much as 12 points early in the game, but clawing their way up each time the Lakers took a lead. Jared Dudley, coming off the bench, scored 19 points in the first half alone, but only managed to score another pair in the second half. In the end, the Lakers were, as they were last May, too big and too much for the Suns to handle.
Too big in the form of Andrew Bynum (14 points on 6-10, seven rebounds, two blocks), who overpowered every Phoenix center with the unfortunate assignment of trying to guard him – Robin Lopez, Marcin Gortat and (chuckle here) Channing Frye. None could handle Bynum backing them down to the basket. None could stop his hook shot off the glass. And on the defensive end, Bynum was the moving wall altering shot attempts, and, for kicks, blocking a two-handed dunk by Gortat.
Too big, in the form of Lamar Odom and his trusty double-double, 12 points on 6-12 and 10 rebounds. Odom played through a lot this evening. He played with four fouls and, upon falling painfully on his left arm/shoulder, bounced right back to help finish the Suns off. It was a regular day at the office for Odom, scoring off a putback from Shannon Brown’s miss, tossing in an awkward shot despite getting fouled and not reaping the benefits of a call, passing to a cutting Andrew Bynum for a thunderous dunk, handing off to Matt Barnes for an easy lay-in. That fall that caused Odom to, though momentarily, writhe in pain on the floor, caused gasps of terror (I’m sure of it) from the Laker faithful, but like he’s known to be to all who have watched him play, Odom is as much of a warrior with pain as his captain, Kobe Bryant. If he felt any ill effects from the fall, he certainly didn’t show it.
Too big in the form of Pau Gasol, who may not have scored in bunches (just six points tonight), but compensated with defense (seven defensive boards) and his passing skills (six assists). With Andrew Bynum back on the floor, Gasol has been able to contribute with more than just his scoring.
Too much in the form of Kobe Bryant, who always seems to save his good games for Phoenix. Bryant led the way to victory with his 24 points on 9-17, adding seven rebounds and five assists. Working his way closer to the hoop, Bryant is scoring on higher percentage shots lately, but in between hitting a midrange jumper here and a three-pointer there. Like always, where he goes, the defense follows, opening opportunities for teammates to score. Bryant hit Ron Artest (11 points, four rebounds, four assists) with passes for wide open threes twice tonight, and Gasol was the beneficiary of the same opportunities from mid-range.
The Lakers still have much to work on defensively. Rotations and switches were all over the place tonight, leaving the Suns, who are deadly from the perimeter, wide open and as expected, they made the Lakers pay. But the visitors recovered in the end and managed to close it out to their advantage. Two wins against struggling teams doesn’t say much, especially for this wildly inconsistent Laker team, but hopefully it’s the start of the upswing that the Lakers have been seeking.
Pre-game Thoughts: The new-look Suns – a little bigger, but still trying to figure things out. In any case, Steve Nash is still running the show.
Half-time Thoughts: 49-50 – The Lakers surged ahead by 12 in the first quarter than somehow ran out of steam in the second, suffering from one defensive lapse after another. Jared Dudley leads all scores with 19 thanks to the Lakers’ defensive lapses…a lot of them. Lamar Odom’s already got three fouls, but Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum must get the ball in their hands more often.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: First of all, the Lakers’ free throw shooting lately has been ghastly. They missed 7-20 today. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant’s attempts coming up short (possibly due to the injured digits), Andrew Bynum’s attempts going too long, or players just tossing it up, they need to capitalize on these opportunities. It’s still points! Second of all, the perimeter defense. Phoenix was wide open on about 95% of their three-point attempts. Rotations and switches have to be mastered soon.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Ron Artest – After a confrontation with Phil Jackson went public, and after a Bill Plaschke article that pegged him unfocused and unhappy, Artest came out and just played, grabbing a key offensive rebound late in the game, not to mention hitting a timely three-pointer.