Lakers' 128-107 Game 1 victory over Phoenix Suns sets tone for rest of the series
Three weeks ago, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson ticked off too many areas to correct as his team remained locked into a first-round series tie through the first four games against Oklahoma City. Following the Lakers' 128-107 Game 1 victory Monday over the Phoenix Suns of the Western Conference Finals, Jackson ticked off too many areas that pleased him.
Three weeks ago, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant fielded questions on his health. That area left many wondering whether his sore right knee would prevent him from having the necessary lift to help him remain dominant. After finishing Monday with a 40-point performance that marked his sixth consecutive game where he scored at least 30 points, Bryant again fielded questions on his health. But this time, many wondered how a week-long of rest, constant treatment and draining the fluid out of his right knee enabled him to remain so dominant.
Three weeks ago, Lakers forward Lamar Odom left many wondering, including Jackson, whether he would ever leave an imprint on the game. After scoring 19 points and grabbing a playoff career-high 19 rebounds in a game where he boosted the Lakers' first-quarter run against Phoenix, he left many wondering the origin of his sudden aggressiveness.
Three weeks ago, the Lakers, the media and fans alike remained split on whether the team still remained championship contenders. After the Lakers imposed their will against Phoenix, however, they look as sharp as ever. Bryant frowned and answered, "I have zero reaction" when he was asked about the 18,997 at Staples Center that chanted "We Want Boston." But with the Lakers seven wins away from securing a second consecutive championship, Bryant believes the Lakers are at their peak.
"We're playing as best as we've played all year right now," Bryant said. "But we still have a lot of work to do."
That is true. No matter how dominating the Lakers played against Phoenix, a Game 1 victory still only means a Game 1 victory. But with the Lakers winning seven consecutive games and showing little signs of changing, this West Finals series should end rather quickly. No, the series isn't over. And Phoenix will surely adjust Wednesday in Game 2. But the Lakers paved the way so they could go on cruise control to the NBA Finals. And it's going to be very hard for the Suns to stop that from happening.
"This is a surprise for us," Jackson said. "We thought this was going to be a close game."
But it wasn't.
After Phoenix scored the game's first seven points, the Lakers held the Suns only to four points in the final 4:24. After Phoenix started out going two of four from three-point range, the Lakers held the league's top three-point shooting team to a five of 22 clip. Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry chalked the poor figure to the team having a bad shooting night and the Lakers tough defense, while the Lakers took the diplomatic route and said the Suns will shoot much better in Game 2. But when the Lakers outscore Phoenix 56-36 in points in the paint, commit only seven turnovers and shoot 58.2%, it won't really matter whether the Suns' shots suddenly fall.
"So far, the series is going the way we want it to," said Lakers forward Pau Gasol, whose 21 points on 10 of 13 shooting marked the fifth time in seven games he scored at least 20 points.
Bryant maintains high levelAll week long, Bryant had limited himself in practice, devoting himself only to shooting drills and lifting weights. It's a strategy he believed would keep his sore right knee healthy, even if the rest came at the expense of maintaining team chemistry and sharpness in practice. Considering his heavy practice during both the off-season and regular season, Bryant acknowledged missing practice during this past week didn't prove too consequential in trying to remain sharp.
But the uncertainty still remained. The Times' Mike Bresnahan reported that Bryant recently had a significant amount of fluid drained from his swollen right knee, a development Bryant and Jackson acknowledged, although the Lakers Coach said that procedure happened at an undisclosed time much earlier than when the report surfaced prior to Game 1. Still, Bryant also stepped on the court wearing a slightly slimmer sleeve on his right knee, a detail Bryant brushed off afterwards, saying, "I've been wearing the sleeve the entire playoffs."
Nonetheless, Jackson still admitted that even with the time off, he still wondered whether Bryant's shooting and reaction time would stay high.
Those concerns soon became unfounded. Though Bryant missed his first two shots, he played aggressively from the beginning. And soon enough, his shot went in the basket. Bryant drove the lane and nailed a floater past Jared Dudley for a 30-23 first-quarter lead with a minute remaining. Bryant sank a three-pointer at the top of the key on the next possession. He then drove the lane and pulled up for a corner jumper, giving the Lakers a 35-26 first-quarter lead as time expired. It was just the beginning of an effort that gave Gentry the observation that "Kobe kind of controlled the whole game."
"When you have these days off, you can kind of sit back and come out too passive to start this game because of the time that we had off," Bryant said. "I wanted to make sure we got off to a good start in the first quarter."
His 11 points on three of five shooting in the first quarter proved to be just the beginning of a 40-point night on 13 of 23 shooting, marking the 11th time in Bryant's playoff career he's scored that many points, most recently in the Lakers' Game 1 2009 NBA Finals victory over Orlando.
After a jump ball, Bryant grabbed possession and fed Gasol inside for a 58-50 lead with 2:12 left in the second quarter. Grant Hill tried denying him penetration on the next play, but Bryant drove the lan and forced a foul on Jason Richardson. In the third quarter, Bryant followed a 16-foot jumper with a finger roll past Richardson after splitting the defense.
Bryant became so engaged with his matchup against Hill, who got advice from Houston forward Shane Battier, that he drove past Hill as he fell and then drew a technical with 7:48 remaining in the third quarter for taunting.
"Every time he plays somebody, he takes it personal," Gentry said. "That's his motivation. I didn't see anything wrong with it. I don't think he was trash talking or anything like that. He understands how important this first game is, and I just thought he played at a real, real high level."
And Bryant's take?
"It's never personal for me," Bryant said, smiling.
Whatever the case may be, Bryant ended the third quarter scoring 21 points, a performance he simply summed up as the product of "being aggressive." While fans saw his effectiveness unfold on the court, the work that went into that started with the week-long stretch of limited practices, a period Bryant afterwards compared to training camp.
Said Odom: "Time off was exactly what he needed."
Odom has coming out game
Gentry thought the Suns could absorb Bryant scoring at such a high rate, so long as his teammates didn't remain involved. So much for that approach.The Lakers featured five players in double figures including Bryant (40), Gasol (21), Odom (19), Ron Artest (14) and Jordan Farmar (10). But there's a reason why Gentry pointed to Odom's play as "the difference in the game" by giving the Lakers "that extra burst of energy to kind of get them over the hump." Jackson seconded that notion by adding that Odom's play "jump started us."
Did it ever.
"He's capable of doing that as a starter," Bryant said of Odom, who helped the reserves outscore the Phoenix bench, 44-35. "You've all seen the numbers that he puts up when he starts for us. But it sends a great message to the rest of our team that he's accepted the role of coming off the bench. He's had games where people have criticized him, but it's really just the amount of time that he's on the floor, and for him to accept that role makes us that much of a better team because he can have moments like this and have games like this."Odom entered the game in place of center Andrew Bynum with 5:31 remaining in the first quarter, and didn't waste time getting involved. He immediately posted up on Channing Frye and converted on a bank shot. Moments later, he hit a three-pointer. Soon after, Bryant drove through the lane in traffic and found Odom. His putback on his own missed shot gave the Lakers' their first lead of the game, at 24-23 with 3:25 remaining, a lead the team would never relinquish. His seven quick points marked just the beginning.
Odom rebounded off of Shannon Brown's missed jumper, he converted on a finger roll after driving the lane through traffic and he tied a career-high in offensive rebounds (seven).
"I didn't really want to wait," said Odom, who said his sprained left shoulder significantly improved this past week. "I said to myself," If I'm going to have a bad game, I'm going to have a bad game going out swinging. I'm not going to wait for the game to come to me tonight. I'm going to try to attack, and if a jump shot is there, I'm going to take it."Of course, Odom and aggressiveness aren't always synonymous. Often, Odom talks about letting the game come to him and wanting to take his time, an attitude that speaks to his willingness to embrace a jack-of-all-trades but an attitude that frustrated Jackson enough for him to publicly say Odom needed to have a bigger presence this postseason.
Odom entered the series averaging 8.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, which ranked below his regular-season average of 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, a clip that prompted former Laker James Worthy to publicly question his effort. But Bryant found such criticisms unfounded.
He's had games when people have criticized him, but it's really just the amount of time that he's on the floor," Bryant said. "For him to accept that roles makes us that much of a better team because he can have moments like this and have games like this."
Bynum shows knee is limiting himNo, Bynum didn't appear to the game in flip-flops and abstain from play like the photo to the right shows him doing this week in practice. But it would've been understandable.
Bynum recently acknowledged that he experienced more pain in his right knee because of increased swelling around the torn cartilage. Though that development largely contributed to Bynum's zero-point finish in Game 3 and six-point effort in Game 4 against Utah, Jackson remained unconcerned about Bynum's long-term health.
But a week-long of limited practice didn't seem to be enough to do the trick. Against Phoenix, he scored only four points on two of four shooting in 19 minutes. It's no coincidence that the Lakers' first-quarter run began as soon as he went to the bench.
"I'm all right," Bynum said regarding his right knee. "It's more mental, I think. Just trusting myself and trying to dunk the ball instead of lay stuff up."Still, Jackson pointed to the rest of the Lakers' cast as reason why he's not concerned about Bynum.
"After the game he said he didn't feel quite up to his normal play, and that's obvious for us," Jackson said. "But we were able to survive it actually without him having a big contribution tonight."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who finished with 40 points in Game 1, finishes off a breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter against the Suns and power forward Amare Stoudemire on Monday night. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom comes up with a steal as Phoenix guard Steve Nash, who lost possession of the ball, is left on the court as the Lakers scored on a Kobe Bryant breakaway dunk on the play in the second half of Game 1 on Monday night. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum walks on the court at the team's training facility in El Segundo during a team practice on Wednesday. Bynum sat out the practice session because of a knee injury. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.