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Lakers 99, Suns 95: Savor Those Pacific Division Bragging Rights

For all the troubles they've had this season, one thing the Lakers have handled well is playing on the second nights of back-to-back sets. That trend continued this evening, as they shook off the effects of a short overnight hop from Los Angeles to subdue the Suns in Phoenix, 99 to 95. The champs have now played six back-to-backs, and in five of them they've prevailed in the second game. In tonight's win, Ron Artest shook off a semi-absurd controversy involving a practice quarrel with Phil Jackson a while back to make some critical crunch-time plays, just as he did against the Suns last May in the conference finals.

The Suns' team defense is an utter travesty, and as expected the Lakers put up some robust offensive numbers, scoring 1.19 points per possession. Kobe Bryant, who posted a game-high 24 points on 19 shots (including free-throw possessions), supplied the cutting edge of the attack. His performance tonight was controlled and elegant and his scoring bursts well timed. Complementary scoring was provided by Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, who collectively made up for what was rather a crap game from Pau Gasol. Except for stretches in the second quarter (when there was some unfortunate, if brief, neglect of the inside game) and late in the fourth quarter (when the Lake Show failed to adjust well to the Suns' zone defense), the purple and gold didn't have much difficulty putting points on the scoreboard, doing particular damage on the offensive glass.

Defensively the marks aren't so high. The Suns scored 1.12 points per trip, right around their season average, though it must be said that they honked a goodly number of open shots. Their most productive run came in the second, when the Lakers lost discipline in checking outside shooters and Jared Dudley took advantage to pour in 15. In this manner the Suns erased a 12-point lead that the Lakers had built up in the first period behind an exhilarating 16 to 0 push. Eventually, though, the Suns' lack of inside scoring options caught up with them. Aside for a few Marcin Gortat looks off Steve Nash pick-and-roll feeds, it seemed as if every shot they took was at least 12 feet away from the hoop, a testament to the Lakers' dominance in the paint.

This was an enjoyable contest to watch. The Phoenix crowd, always generously laced with L.A. fans, was into it, and the score was close throughout. What proved crucial was a stretch at the beginning of the third period, when Kobe, after a strong but reserved first half, became more forceful at the offensive end. In the first six possessions he collected eight points and an assist. This turned a one-point halftime deficit into a six-point cushion that the Suns spent the rest of the night struggling and ultimately failing to overcome. For the third quarter as a whole, in which the Lakers scored a scrumptious 1.41 points per trip, Kobe scored 12 on six shots and handed out three dimes. Who's killing who now?

The fourth period got a tad bumpy for Laker fans. With 10:04 left, Lamar Odom landed violently on his pitching elbow after a swooping layup and momentarily lay writhing on the floor. Turns out it was just his funny bone - LOL whew! - and he was able to remain in the game. It wasn't Lamar's greatest shooting night ever - 12 points on 12 shots - but his presence was felt in every phase of the battle. He handed out three assists without committing a turnover, and his four offensive boards led to seven critical second-chance points. As a team the purp and yellow dominated the glass at both ends, rebounding 40% of their own misses to the Suns' 13%. Only one Laker opponent this season (the Pacers on December 15th) has had a lower offensive-rebounding rate.

With a little over nine minutes to play and his team trailing by six, Suns coach Alvin Gentry called for a zone D. It didn't exactly bring the Laker offense to a halt, but it did produce some stops and give the Suns a shot at stealing the win. To that moment, the Lakers had scored 84 points on 67 possessions (for a 1.25 PPP). In their final 16 trips against the Phoenix zone, they scored just 15 points (for a 0.94 PPP). That's what happens when an attack becomes stagnant and loses its off-ball movement. You have to think Gentry wishes he'd gone to the zone sooner.

With 1:42 to play, Vince Carter missed a short-range jumper that would've sliced the lead to one. Kobe took the rebound and pushed the ball upcourt. Before the zone could be established, he zipped the rock to a wiiiiiiiiide open Artest in the left corner. Ron had at least a couple seconds to measure the shot. To be honest, I don't think that's always a good thing for Ron, who seems to shoot better when he doesn't have a lot of time to think about it. This time, though, he buried the triple to put the Lakers up six again. And on their next possession, he chased down an offensive board, leading to a Derek Fisher J that secured the victory.

One quibble I have with Phil tonight relates to his big-man rotation at the end of the game. Gasol was ineffective on offense all evening: he scored just six points on 10 shots, a number of them very clean looks from spots he usually hits from. Bynum, meanwhile, was a constant source of pain and despair for the Suns, who couldn't withstand his physicality inside. Yet it was Gasol who manned the center position over the final 6:46 while Drew rode out the endgame on the bench. Drew was struggling from the free-throw line, so I'd understand keeping him out in the last couple of minutes, but it felt like Phil could've kept him in the game longer to exploit his mismatch against the Suns' feeble frontline.

No matter: the Lakers now move to 25-11, good for third in the West. Up next are the Hornets on Friday night and the Knicks on Sunday. Until then, keep on hustling like I know you will.











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