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Dissecting performances by Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest in Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 victory over Phoenix

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Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and forward Ron Artest have both fielded plenty of doubt entering the postseason. Many wondered whether Bryant could overcome numerous injuries -- including a fractured right index finger, a sprained left ankle and a swollen right knee -- that have ailed him this season. Many wondered whether Artest could provide the same fluidity on defense as he does on offense.

Bryant has since been the model of consistency this postseason, averaging 33.7 points on 52.1% along with 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the Western Conference Finals. Artest has experienced glimpses of hot shooting nights and recently redeemed himself with a game-winning putback in Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns.

But in the Lakers' 111-103 series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Suns on Saturday, both players fully illustrated the danger they pose to opposing teams. Bryant scored 37 points, concluding a series in which he nearly recorded a triple-double three times. Artest scored 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting, including four of seven from three-point range, overcoming a postseason performance that entailed shooting below 50% in 10 of the 16 playoff games, and a shot selection that induced hand-wringing from Coach Phil Jackson, the media and fans alike.

But on the night when the Lakers clinched their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance, a meeting with the Boston Celtics and a chance to redeem their 2008 Finals loss, Bryant and Artest played at peak level. Below is a breakdown of plays they made that helped the Lakers win Game 6.

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Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum discuss 111-103 Game 6 victory over Phoenix Suns

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson

Lakers guard Derek Fisher

Lakers forward Ron Artest

Lakers center Andrew Bynum

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 victory over Phoenix Suns illustrates how momentum makes a difference

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The Lakers at the time nursed a comfortable 15-point lead over Phoenix and appeared only a quarter away from clinching their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

But then what appeared to be an innocuous play involving Lakers reserve guard Sasha Vujacic and Phoenix backup point guard Goran Dragic quickly turned into something devastating. Dragic beat Vujacic off the dribble, drove the lane, stopped at the free-throw line and threw Vujacic off-balance. Dragic's pull-up jumper swished into the net, prompting him to chatter into Vujacic's ear. The two Slovenian natives had an earlier exchange in Game 5, where both ultimately were called for technical fouls. But the one assessed to Vujacic in Game 6 proved to be more devastating.

Laker fans can debate all they want whether Vujacic flailing his arms and throwing an inadvertent elbow into Dragic warranted him overly dramatizing the situation and falling down to the ground. You can argue all you wantthat  the play didn't warrant a flagrant foul-1, particularly because Vujacic had his back turned on Dragic when he raised his arms. You can also point to other areas of the game, such as the Lakers' mostly non-existent defense, Pau Gasol's disappearing act and the team's two-of-nine clip during the Suns' fourth-quarter run as reasons Game 6's outcome had remained in question. But the Vujacic-Dragic incident in the Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 Western Conference finals victory over the Suns presents a backdrop beyond the fact they're advancing to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year, are squaring off against the hated Boston Celtics and have the chance to avenge their 2008 Finals loss. 

It served as a teachable moment that illustrated Phil Jackson's contention all series that seemingly small things eventually affect the larger outcome. It happened in the Lakers' Game 3 loss when a poor rebounding effort spurred plenty of Suns run-outs and three-pointers to widen the gap. It happened when Ron Artest's ill-advised three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining on the shot clock in the final minute of Game 5 led to Jason Richardson banking in a tying three-pointer after the Suns grabbed two offensive rebounds. And it happened when Artest redeemed himself by sneaking past Richardson, grabbing Kobe Bryant's missed shot and converted on the put-back to give the Lakers a Game 5 victory.

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This time, the chippy display between Vujacic and Dragic served as that moment. Though Bryant's 11 fourth-quarter points ultimately sealed the win, the Lakers nearly squandered the game because of how Vujacic's flagrant foul with 11:18 remaining in the game spurred the Suns' momentum. Aside from the Phoenix crowd rising to its feet for the remainder of the game, Dragic converted on both free throws and then drove past Vujacic on the following play and then scored on a right-handed layup. The sequence marked a seven-point effort that slashed the Lakers' lead to 91-80.

That just marked the beginning of the Suns' 16-4 run that cut the Lakers' lead to 95-90 with 5:46 remaining. Frye hit a three-pointer off an inbounds pass. Stoudemire drove baseline and dunked over Gasol. Stoudemire converted on two free throws after drawing a foul on Lamar Odom. And Stoudemire scored on a layup after Dragic made a pass around Gasol in the lane, cutting their deficit to five.

Fortunately for the Lakers, they had other players show how their own little contributions can positively affect the outcome. Despite nursing a bloodied finger, Bryant's 37 points came off seemingly tough jumpers, a 10-of-11 effort at the free-throw line and several drives to the basket. Fisher's two critical jumpers in the fourth quarter as well as drawing an offensive charge against Stoudemire illustrated his continual embracing of his utility role. Ron Artest's 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, hustle plays and even calming Vujacic down on the sideline showcased how Artest, of all people, can properly channel his motivations, in this case feeling slighted by Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry for giving him open outside shots. And Andrew Bynum's 10 points on three-of-five shooting and improved mobility on defense demonstrated his commitment to fighting through the torn cartilage in his right knee.

But despite those efforts, seemingly small and negative traits could magnify in scope against Boston, which has saved its best play for the postseason. Who knows how Vujacic's act will affect his rotation and relationship with teammates, even if he had shown promise before that incident. Who knows if Gasol will turn around his uncharacteristic low-level contribution in time for the Celtics' rugged front line of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace. And who knows if the the Lakers could afford to survive an up-and-down series against the Celtics, much like they did against the Suns.

The Lakers should feel confident heading into the 2010 NBA Finals, as the team has mostly played at its peak during the postseason. But let the latest performance serves as a stark reminder that something as small as an inadvertent flagrant foul can suddenly erase the hard work put in beforehand.

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Top photo: Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic pleads his case with the referee after being called for a flagrant foul when striking Suns point guard Goran Dragic in the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Saturday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.

Middle photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shoots over the defense of Suns forward Grant Hill to increase the Lakers' lead to seven points with less than two minutes to play in Game 6 on Saturday night. Bryant had 11 points in the fourth quarter and a game-high 37 points. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

Lakers have many areas they want to sharpen in Game 6 against Phoenix

Once the buzzer sounded and the Lakers' 103-101 Game 5 Western Conference finals victory over the Phoenix Suns became official, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson immediately walked off the court. 

He surely appreciated the entertainment value the game provided: Phoenix slashed an 18-point lead. The Suns tied the score off Jason Richardson's banked-in three-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. And Lakers forward Ron Artest redeemed himself from an ill-advised three-pointer with 22 seconds on the shot clock in the final minute with a put-back basket off Kobe Bryant's missed shots as time expired. But that's the exact reason why he headed toward the entrance tunnel, so he'd keep his coaching mind-set rather than getting awash with all the emotions.

"I don't want to get too involved in it," said Jackson, though he admitted staying up until 1 a.m. to watch a replay of the game.

The Lakers have every reason to feel confident heading into Game 6 tonight, what with the energy wave from the Game 5 finish, the potential clinching of an NBA Finals matchup with Boston and the knowledge that they've won eight of their last nine closeout games. There's plenty of reasons, however, why the Lakers feel they're required to put together a better performance in Game 6. In the Lakers' Game 5 victory, they allowed six Suns to score in double figures, let the 18-point lead evaporate and made a few late-game gaffes, including allowing Richardson to tie the score at 101-101 with 3.5 seconds remaining after the Suns shot three consecutive three-pointers and grabbed two offensive rebounds. And, of course, there's Steve Nash's guarantee that the Suns will force a seventh game.

Jackson didn't take much offense to the comment as much as, say, Artest, but the coach shot back: "What else is he going to say? We're going to go home and lose?"

I noted in detail how the Lakers have managed a strong record in closing out games in the 2009 and 2010 postseason. And when I asked if Jackson noticed a specific pattern in those performances, he cited the team's defensive intensity, low turnovers and low amount of three-point shots, a formula Jackson wants the Lakers to duplicate.

"We don't plan on going to Phoenix and lose three times on their home court. That's something we're not making this trip on there just to fill a date. We're going there to win a game. We're highly motivated for this game. But we understand that if it has to go seven, we're damn well ready to go back home and defend our court."

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Andrew Bynum gets his wish in possible Finals opponent

Even if Lakers Coach Phil Jackson chastises Andrew Bynum for his blunt honesty, teammates express concern about him looking ahead and Phoenix takes offense to his assessment, there's very little that will hold the Lakers center back.

Talk to him after games when he doesn't get enough looks inside, and he'll validate that claim. Ask him whether he's injury prone -- an obvious notion shared by many Lakers fans -- and he'll nod in agreement. Wonder if he's looking forward to a matchup with the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, and he'll give you a definitive answer, not once, but twice.

This may fuel the apparent back-and-forth the Lakers have had since Steve Nash guaranteed the Western Conference finals would last seven games and Ron Artest claimed that showed a sign of disrespect. Though I wouldn't be surprised if Bynum's proclamations add to the Suns' bulletin board material, his tone and persona really points to the fact he's just speaking with no filter and answering the question directly. Of course, there's an art to question dodging, which Kobe Bryant perfectly executes, but Bynum likely speaks to the sentiments shared by many Lakers players. It's not that they're looking ahead. It's just that they know the prize that eagerly awaits them if they manage to close out Phoenix today in the West finals.

-- Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Ron Artest moving past Game 5 heroics, but still feels disrespected

The moment Ron Artest's put-back went through the basket in the Lakers' 103-101 Game 5 Western Conference finals victory Thursday over the Phoenix Suns, he claimed for a split second he felt no emotion other than the fact the Lakers need to win Game 6 to clinch the series.

Soon after, however, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant embraced him, Lakers forward Lamar Odom wrapped his arms around him and the rest of the team quickly followed suit. I noted before that Artest, a player who prides himself on not dwelling on past performances, seemed to soak up the scene, slapping high-fives with teammates, enthusiastically recapping the theatrics to reporters and signing autographs to plenty of fans. Yet, he shared after Friday's practice that the brief jubilation pointed more to the fact that he viewed his game-winner as "more of a team thing" than any individual accomplishment. 

Artest's happiness became as fleeting as his rise from goat to hero in Game 5. That's when he launched an ill-advised three-pointer in the final minute as the Lakers nursed a three-point lead with 22 seconds on the shot clock. He then responded with a put-back off Bryant's missed three-pointer with 0.8 seconds remaining. Artest's post-game elation appeared so fleeting that he wondered why former Sacramento teammate Mike Bibby sent him a text message congratulating him for the shot. It appeared so fleeting that he went to a local gym to work out for an hour, believing that immediate postgame exercise would ensure longer recovery time before the next game. It appeared so fleeting that he used the phrase "move on" eight different times the next day when discussing his Game 5 heroics.

"I wasn't always that way," said Artest, whose career has mostly been defined by his aloof and angry on-court persona, most notably in the Brawl at the Palace. "When I was younger, I'd stay in the moment or stay in the past. But I wish I could've enjoyed it more. But there's nothing to enjoy."

As far as why that mindset has changed, Artest said, "I don't know." But he acknowledged he'll revel in the moment if Lakers win a championship, which explains why Artest signed a five-year deal worth $33 million with the organization and why fans and media members forever debate whether the Lakers are better off with Artest than Trevor Ariza. That's because Artest embodies a living contradiction that both frustrates and inspires, with his up-and-down performance in Game 5 serving as the most recent example. The Lakers have enjoyed his lockdown defensive presence but experience frustration with Artest's learning curve in the triangle offense. They lament his stubborn approach in shooting open shots, despite his 32.9 shooting percentage this postseason, but love that Artest maintains the confidence to immediately bounce back. Artest carries a serious approach in going to the gym immediately following Game 5, but arrives to practice the following day a half-hour late because he didn't read the correct time on the whiteboard.

That's why when a reporter asked Lakers Coach Phil Jackson if he can properly explain Artest, he immediately relents. "No, I certainly can't," said Jackson, who added he fined Artest an undisclosed amount for arriving late to practice. "I tell Lamar [Odom] he's his guardian. We have not the blind leading the blind, but probably the deaf leading the blind." Through the good and the bad, however, reveals one clear thing. Artest's teammates have fully embraced him. The team's support following Artest's game-winner appeared genuine, with Jackson describing the reaction this way: "They all knew he messed up and were rooting for him to have a comeback." Bryant admires Artest's willingness to play through adversity: "He just puts his head down and goes. And Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who describes Artest as a "good teammate" and "good guy," points to his want to help: "He's worked to try to adjust and fit in as much as he could."

"I don't know if that's the right thing or the wrong thing," Artest said. "I don't know if I'm going about things the right way or the wrong way but I worry about the next possession."

Nonetheless, you can't fault Artest for his earnestness in wanting to help the team. After suffering through plantar fasciitis (sore feet) in December, he went through pains to lose weight so he could compensate for his decreased quickness. He has routinely delegated to teammates, most notably Bryant, and makes it clear he's part of the supporting cast. And he's played through assorted injuries, including a sprained left thumb.

You can understand Artest's intentions, even if they didn't produce the desired result. He dyed his hair numerous times in hope to lighten the mood, only to be met with teasing and rolled eyes among teammates and the coaching staff. He's attempted to learn the offense and play through it, even if he often causes disruption. And he's tried to revamp his persona with numerous public appearances, though it's often diverted his attention from fully concentrating on basketball.

And then there are things you simply have to tolerate as Artest still shows small glimpses of immaturity. There was head-scratching over his Christmas night concussion. Artest's frustrations with Jackson's public criticism of his shooting prompted him to air his grievances via Twitter. And he views opponents' scouting reports in giving him open shots as a sign of disrespect when it really just speaks to teams playing the percentages.

But there's no amount of statistics to quantify the effort Artest will bring. There may be maddening performances to come. The rest of the postseason might also feature some strong defensive matchups and hot shooting nights. Whatever version of Artest the Lakers will experience, they know he's leaving everything on the court in an effort to help ensure the Lakers repeat. 

"My main thing is making sure I stay in the game, staying focused and giving 100%," Artest said. "Sometimes 100% is not good enough for people watching or it's just not good enough. If I give 100%, I'm totally happy. That's why I'm totally happy with being a villain sometimes or being hated. As long as I give 100%, I'm like, 'Cool, I gave 100%,' I went down like a soldier. That's the only thing I know."

But don't expect Artest to savor the moment anytime soon, unless, of course, the Lakers win the title.

Said Artest: "If God blesses me, if he allows me to have that, I will."

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Lakers' Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol and Sasha Vujacic discuss 103-101 Game 5 victory over Phoenix Suns

Lakers forward Ron Artest

Lakers guard Derek Fisher

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson

Lakers forward Pau Gasol

Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmediin@gmail.com

Caught in the Web: Previewing Game 5 of Lakers-Suns series

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Lakers links

--The Times' Mike Bresnahan highlights the Lakers' success in must-win playoff situations.

--The Times' Lisa Dillman explains what's gotten Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson so upset with the team's defense.

--ESPN.com's J.A. Adande outlines why the Lakers feel they're in a good position.

--The Orange County Register's Janis Carr offers various reasons why the Lakers played better at home this series.

--The Orange County Register's Kevin Ding explains why the Lakers should savor the championship experience.

--ESPN.com's John Hollinger explains how the Lakers can win a "wild West shootout" (insider subscription required).

--Fox Sports' Randy Hill predicts Jackson will field plenty of offers from other teams this offseason.

--ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky details the Lakers' confidence.

--The Riverside Press-Enterprise's David Lassen showcases the Lakers' recent successes in Game 5.

--Yahoo! Sports' Johnny Ludden credits Bryant for imploring his teammates to take the Suns seriously.

--Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix breaks down five things to watch in Game 5.

--ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi argues the Lakers are playing soft against Phoenix.

--Even though he believes the Lakers will win Game 5, the Orange County Register's Jeff Miller argues that the Suns can still win the series.

--The Orange County Register's Marcia Smith highlights reader feedback regarding Jackson's stance on immigration.

--The Daily News' Elliott Teaford notices some trends in the Lakers' seven-game winning streak in Game 5s during the last three playoff runs.

--Forum Blue and Gold's Darius breaks down how the Lakers can sharpen up on defense.

--Silver Screen and Roll's Saurav A. Das assesses the Lakers' ability to produce in the clutch.

--Lakers.com's Mike Trudell outlines how Bryant's improved health has affected his play.

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Suns links

--The Times' Broderick Turner observes that Phoenix has renewed confidence after tying the series. Turner also credits Alvin Gentry's coaching in helping the Suns get back in the series.

--The Times' Mark Heisler praises Steve Nash's toughness.

--The Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley shows how the Suns' success has brought the state together.

--NBA.com's Fran Blinebury argues that the Suns' zone has added a new wrinkle to the West finals match-up

--The Arizona Republic's Paola Boivin features the appreciation the Suns' starters have for their bench.

--NBA.com's Art Garcia breaks down the Suns' zone defense with former NBA coach Don Casey.

--Fox Sports Arizona's Dave Lumia credits Gentry for helping the Suns sharpen their chemistry.

--ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne explains why Suns don't pay attention to the outside skepticism.

--The Arizona Republic's Bob Young argues that the series has shifted. He also explains why Channing Frye has enjoyed the playoff run.

--Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg documents how the Suns found the right mix in a playoff-caliber team.

--Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen points to the Suns' bench and three-point shooting as the keys Phoenix must master to win Game 5.

--NBA Fanhouse's Chris Tomasson argues that the Suns' key to beating the Lakers doesn't necessarily involve just shutting down Bryant.

--Valley of the Suns' Michael Schwartz lists five things Phoenix must to do win the West finals.

Web Interview

I discussed the Lakers-Suns series in the video below with Don Best TV host Pat Williams.

Tweet of the Day: U know the Lakers are goin to come out focus tonight ... I remember game 5 vs the thunder ... they scored everything in the paint ... Gotta be ready" -- JaredDudley619 (Phoenix Suns reserve forward Jared Dudley)

Reader Comment of the Day: "I'm sure LA will hit more shots at home, but it remains to be seen whether LA can keep up their defense against a PHX team that has yet to shoot well in this series" -- BUTLER

-- Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Upper photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom, right, battles with Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire for a rebound during Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Suns guard Jason Richardson leaps into the crowd after trying to keep the ball in play during Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Lakers maintain calm attitude during current struggles

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A five-minute interview that consisted of Kobe Bryant offering rapid-fire responses had almost come to an end. In between each of his short and direct answers, a reporter fired another question, ranging from how the Lakers allowed Phoenix to tie the Western Conference Finals at 2-2, the team's poor defense, its struggle against the Suns' zone, its trigger-happy tendencies from three-point range and the importance of Game 5 on Thursday night at Staples Center. Bryant maintained a pretty stoic persona throughout the session, offering neither smiles nor visible frustration. Finally, a reporter openly wondered about his state of being.

"You having fun, Kobe?" he asked.

After pausing, Bryant simply responded, "Sure."

Bryant's far from happy with the Lakers' performance, as is Coach Phil Jackson, who had plenty to critique about the Suns' rebounding advantage (51-36), the Lakers' shooting from three-point range (nine of 28) and the team's defense. But Jackson's comments to his players during Wednesday's practice summed up pretty well how he views the team's current situation.

"Like I told them, if you can't meet this challenge," Jackson said, "why go to the Finals?"

That seemed almost a guarantee as recently as last week with the Lakers opening up a 2-0 series lead while Phoenix showed no signs it could shut down the Lakers' numerous options in Bryant, the team's outside game and the suddenly hot outside shooting. Given that closing out the series would've given the Lakers additional time off while Orlando has crept back with Boston, this isn't the scenario Jackson or his players want. But Jackson's comments to his team spoke more of what he hoped served as a teachable moment during the postseason. How a team responds during adverse situations can reveal its true colors better than when things are going smoothly.

"There's absolutely no doubt that we love this," Jackson said. "This is what champions are made of. We had this situation with Oklahoma [in the first round tied 2-2]. We had it with Denver last year in the Finals. It should be like this. This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this. If the teams have the grit and ability, then they're here. Then it should come down to this kind of a challenge. We want to accept that and go forward."

Though the Lakers had been in this predicament before when the Thunder tied the series at 2-2, Jackson pointed to how the circumstance differs given Oklahoma City is a young and upcoming team, while the Suns have more experience, a reason why he views the Lakers' current situation as a greater challenge. I had observed during that time that the Lakers maintained a pretty level-headed approach. The Lakers appeared to have the same mindset during Wednesday's practice, speaking in very matter-of-fact tones and acting neither overly optimistic or pessimistic about the situation.

Clearly, the Lakers have experienced this before, a luxury Lakers guard Derek Fisher acknowledges the team has. But he remained hesitant to give that factor too much credit considering the possibility it can give the team false comfort. 

"Experience does count for something but you don't get any points for it in the game," Fisher said. "Obviously we'll take it and we'll utilize it in the right situations. But it's not something we're just leaning on -- because we have more experience that we're supposed to win. There are a lot of situations throughout a game that in terms of preparation for a game and all the things that go into winning playoff games where experience matters. It's not something we feel gives us an edge in a way where we just show up and something's going to happen for us."

Even so, the Lakers responded in Game 5 against Oklahoma City with a convincing 111-87 victory. And for what it's worth, Gasol senses the Lakers having the same attitude now as they did entering that contest.

"It's Game 5 and the series is tight," Gasol said. "It's a must win for us. The sense of urgency is total at this point."

-- Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to cut past Phoenix center Robin Lopez, right, as Lakers center Andrew Bynum screens Grant Hill, left, during Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.

Phoenix's fourth-quarter adjustment on Kobe Bryant makes difference in Lakers' 115-106 Game 4 loss to Suns

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Lakers guard Kobe Bryant stood wide open behind the perimeter, waving his arms up and down, hoping the outward body language would help get him the ball. But Lakers guard Derek Fisher didn't see the movement, too busy fixated on driving through the lane. With the shot clock ticking down to five seconds, Bryant flailed his arms again. But Fisher didn't see Bryant again, and instead, attempted a corner three-pointer, which Phoenix forward Channing Frye quickly swatted away.

On the other end, Suns forward Louis Amundson set a screen on Fisher, Phoenix guard Goran Dragic dribbled around Pau Gasol, and Amundson rolled inside. Frye then curled to the nearside perimeter and caught Dragic's pass before finding Amundson down low. He missed the lay-in but drew a foul on Odom, converted on one of two free throws and gave the Suns a 10-point lead with 4:37 remaining in the game.

The described play served as the most visible example that despite Bryant's tremendous effort with 38 points on 15 of 22 shooting, 10 assists and seven rebounds, the team actually didn't do enough to allow Bryant to carry the Lakers when nearly all parts of the team's game, including the post play, bench, three-point shooting and defense, had fallen apart in its 115-106 Game 4 loss Tuesday to Phoenix. Yet, the following play also illustrated how Phoenix made the necessary fourth-quarter adjustments in double teaming Bryant after he scored 15-second quarter points by playing off the weakside of Phoenix's 2-3 zone. With the Lakers trailing by nine with less than two minutes left in the game, Bryant manned the point, met a double team from Frye and Steve Nash on the perimeter and met help defense from Jason Richardson above the circle. Bryant had no choice but to pass to the far corner where Ron Artest stood unmarked for a pretty obvious reason. His shot wouldn't fall. Bryant, on the other hand, wouldn't be given an inch from the Suns' D.

Said Bryant: "It's just knowing that when you catch the ball they have three guys around you, somebody else is open."

"They knew where he was," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said regarding the Suns' defense on Bryant, who attempted only four field goals in the fourth quarter. "He really had put in an effort to riding that hot spell he had during that period of time [in the second quarter]. They had a double team design out there that they had tried to use to try to limit his touches."

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That couldn't have been more apparent at the beginning of the fourth quarter, when Bryant ran off a pick set by Andrew Bynum on Phoenix guard Jason Richardson. Just as Bryant appeared to drive the lane, Richardson swiped the ball, which bounced off Bryant and went out of bounds. There was a play where Bryant caught the ball on the right block and immediately met a double team, causing Bryant to kick the ball out to Lakers reserve guard Jordan Farmar, who missed an open three-pointer. And then there was the time Bryant drove the lane, met an aggressive Goran Dragic and kicked the ball out in mid air to Shannon Brown, who also missed an open three-pointer.

Yet, plenty of sequences in the fourth quarter simply illustrated the Lakers didn't fully utilize Bryant's ability to take over a game.

After catching an entry pass from Farmar in the near post, Bynum didn't notice an open Bryant on the weakside. Instead, Bynum passed the ball out to Farmar, who missed a corner three-pointer. Then, Amundson boxed out Lakers forward Lamar Odom and cleaned the glass. Moments later, Dragic ran the break, crossing past Farmar into the lane. Bryant caught up to help, while Brown confronted Dragic from down low. But Dudley stood open on the nearside corner. Bryant reacted quickly and contested Dudley's shot, but it went in and widened the gap to 98-89 with 6:47 remaining.

On another play with nearly five minutes remaining, Bryant cut to the top of the key once Artest fed Gasol an entry pass. After getting double teamed by Amundson and Dragic, Bryant waved his arm, but it didn't get Gasol's attention. Gasol didn't necessarily make a bad decision, kicking the ball to an open Fisher in the near corner. But had Gasol seen Bryant continue cutting to the far end of the court and passed the ball to him on the play, Bryant likely would've produced a far better result than Odom's mishandled shot in the paint.

Fast forward to the 4:23 mark and you have Gasol unsuccessfully shooting over Amundson and Dudley in the paint instead of kicking the ball out to Bryant, left unmarked at the top of the key. On the other end, Dragic manned the point up top against Fisher, dribbled left, crossed to his right and then spun past Fisher at the free-throw line. Odom attempted to help, but Dragic switched to his right hand and converted on the layup, widening the gap to 103-90.

When I asked Gasol if a better effort should've been made for Bryant to get more looks when he had them, it appeared Gasol didn't want to come across criticizing Bryant considering the work he put in Game 4.

"I don't know," Gasol said. "He obviously shot the ball extremely well last night. He also made big plays as far as assisting. It was a great game on his part. Unfortunately we couldn't capitalize on it and make it a better chance for us to win the ball game. I don't know if he could've taken any more shots. I think in the fourth quarter, they threw two or three guys at the zone on him to make sure he got rid of the ball or made somebody else make a play. When that happens, we have to understand that we have to be aggressive."

Surely, that's understandable and there were plenty of areas that the Lakers could've sharpened to ensure a victory. But there were a few plays Bryant served as the better option where he had a rare open look.

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, encourages his teammates after hitting a three-pointer over Phoenix guard Jason Richardson, left, in Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Phoenix center Louis Amundson tries to get to the basket after pulling down a rebound in front of Lakers forward Lamar Odom, left, and guard Kobe Bryant during Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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