Hello from Phoenix everybody … We should all be in for a fun one tonight, yes?
Since I just got up to my seat after barely navigating through lots of orange and purple, carefully dodging a plethora of “Beat L.A.” signs, I’ll have to get right to the starting lineups:
Lakers: Fish, Kobe, Vladi, Gasol and Bynum
Suns: Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Matt Barnes, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal
As we’re waiting for TNT to actually start the game, I have a few minutes to feed you some information from the mouth of Lamar Odom, whom I talked to for a few minutes in the locker room before the game. I asked Lamar whom the focus should be on with this Suns team, and he said: “Steve Nash, but not because of talent … He just has the ball all the time.”
So, while Phoenix now seems to run it’s offense mostly through Shaq, Nash remains the guy that many opponents focus on, according to Odom. After chatting about that for a bit, Odom and I spent a few minutes talking about how many players around the league are still judged by their scoring totals, after I mentioned his box-score-filling performance in just 22 minutes the other day. Finally, Odom said he’d probably spend some time on Amare Stoudemire today, particularly if Gasol or Bynum got in foul trouble.
Game time: Four early minutes delivered a 7-7 tie, complete with matching threes (Barnes and Radmanovic), a Shaq dunk and a Bynum jumper. The fans here go nuts on every Suns hoop, but it’s interesting to hear a loud minority of Lakers fans expressing themselves on every Laker bucket. Sure, Lakers fans exist everywhere, but it’s still impressive to me to see in person.
The first extended timeout found Phoenix up 24-18 behind eight points from Stoudemire and two threes from Raja Bell, but immediately afterwards, the Lakers went on an 8-0 run capped by a slashing drive from Trevor Ariza to make the score 26-24 after one. The run commenced with an Odom finger roll in the lane that preceded a beautiful Bryant drive and finish that closed the gap to two. Gasol then converted over Amare before Ariza’s hoop, leaving me thinking this: Neither team’s been able to do much defensively to affect the other team, and the quarter’s been about who’d made more of their open looks.
Slightly less interestingly, the Arizona State marching band and cheerleaders came on to perform at the quarter break. What is that about? Clearly it was a shout to Lakers.com’s own Ty Nowell, an ASU grad. I have no other explanation.
A few stats stood out early: Shaq made only 1-of-4 field goals, while Bryant was 2-for-6. Both Radmanovic and Bell made each of two three-point attempts, a nice sign especially for Vladi, who’d been struggling with his shot. Every Lakers starter scored, while Steve Nash managed to amass six assists in the quarter.
L.A. continued a nice stretch early in the second … Andrew Bynum followed two Vujacic jumpers with a hoop of his own to cap a 14-0 Lakers run that turned a 24-18 deficit into a 32-24 advantage, though Phoenix quickly hit its next two shots to pull within four at the 10:01 mark. That solid Lakers stretch came courtesy of Bynum plus the second unit, which had tapered off a bit in the last two games after being at times dominant in L.A.’s first several wins.
If it’s at all telling, L.A.’s locker room was quite relaxed before the game. Sometimes teams will be tense before heading out to face a good team in a hostile arena, but these Lakers seem to look forward to – if not seek out – such challenges. Ariza was licking his chops to play better now that he’s feeling better, Odom was eager to continue to show why he should be playing big minutes, Vujacic was eager to show that his ankles aren’t going to bother him, and even the soft-spoken Bynum seemed to be licking his chops for another chance to go at Shaq. Those are just the guys I had a moment to observe. Sure enough, the team has looked quite relaxed on the floor, turning the ball over only twice in the first quarter (both from Bryant, both very early) and generally making the right passes on offense. They didn’t shoot the ball great (10-for-23), but got good looks.
***NOTE FROM TY… Trudell just called me from US Airways Center ready to throw his computer through the ballrack after experiencing some serious internet difficulties in Phoenix. Apparently the internet connection in the arena is a no go and the wireless PC card is on the fritz as well. If the internet cooperates he’ll be back in action and should have plenty to post at that time (rumor is that he’s already written about two pages).***
Yeah, Mike here again. That only took 20 minutes, and made sure you got no analysis of most of the second quarter. Here are three reasons technology hates me:
1) Instead of easily uploading, the Phil and Lamar pregame audio simply didn’t work for me after I spent 45 minutes focusing on that before the game. Ty had to bail me out. Awesome.
2) I thought I left my phone in the cab after taking one with Spero Dedes to the arena. Instead, I apparently dropped it while fumbling for cash to pay the man, then spent the next 30 minutes on the phone pacing around the underground area calling the cab company and frantically stopping security guards asking if they’d seen it. I was a mess. I mean, not like Britney post head-shaving or anything, but it wasn’t good. Eventually I found it, just in time to catch Phil and have the audio not work.
3) The wireless went off ONLY on my computer, as everyone around me happily typed. At this point, I started to understand how Amy Winehouse feels on a daily basis. OK, not really. That’s ridiculous.
Let me see if I can summarize what I wrote before:
L.A.’s defense was pretty good in the second quarter, holding the Suns to just 20 points, as Bynum, Gasol and Odom did a fantastic job of not allowing anything easy in the paint. That, plus another Radmanovic three, nine combined points from Vujacic and Farmar and a 7-0 run after a timeout at the 5:11 mark, and L.A. took a 50-44 lead into halftime. I think Vladi’s 3-for-3 from three is a big Lakers storyline considering his recent struggles from the field, coupled with an impressive stretch off the pine from Odom that produced six points, four boards, an assist and a steal. But as a team, the best sign was the aforementioned tightening of the defense of the paint, because the Suns boast two of the biggest and best offensive threats on the block in Shaq and Amare, who combined for only 16 first half points. Gotta like that, though not quite as much as the 45-minute massage I got at Brookstone today.
Kobe time. Seven points from the MVP in the quarter’s first three minutes and change gave L.A. its biggest lead of the evening, a 63-51 edge that took some of the crowd’s energy right from its breath. His points came courtesy of a triple, a big one-handed dunk in transition and a nice one-handed floater in the lane, which came after his steal of Stoudemire on the other end. But honestly, I was more impressed with the defense, which continued to force the Suns into tough shots. L.A.’s starters really put the hammer down in that opening stanza.
Vladi’s fourth-straight swish from three at 6:48 mark made it 66-54, though Phoenix did pull four points back thanks to a Nash bucket and another Shaq spin move, this time on Odom. But how about Lamar guarding Shaq? No. 7′s a bit stronger than he looks, don’t you think? I will say, however, that one of the world’s top physical therapists, the Lakers own Alex McKechnie (Athletic Performance Coordinator), told me today that Kobe Bryant is the strongest pound-for-pound Laker, and one of the strongest humans he’s worked with. Core strength = Kobe. This is not a surprise.
Vladi’s on fire. The Serbians fifth rainbow three seemingly equaled the height of the jumbotron, or like 15 stacked Andrew Bynums, before being swallowed by the rim. For good measure, Fisher dropped a triple of his own on the next possession to open a 76-62 Lakers lead. The quieting of the crowd I alluded to moments ago was nothing like this. I wonder if they’d be this silent if I speared their mascot randomly. What do you think would happen if I just sprinted down the stairs, ran onto the court and tackled the Gorilla? Would there be malice? Laughter? Joy from the Lakers fans? We’ll never find out, of course, but it’s fun to think about.
The third quarter closed with a pretty finish at the rim from Odom courtesy of Bryant’s find to give L.A. a 80-67 cushion heading into the final quarter. One stat I found pretty interesting: Pau Gasol had only four points on 2-of-8 shooting after three, after scoring 34 points against a small Bulls team on Tuesday. However, Gasol had a ridiculous eight assists plus his eight rebounds, keeping his fantasy value high and the Lakers’ offense running smoothly. Most of the third quarter scoring came courtesy of Bryant’s 11 points, plus five from Fisher and six from Vladi.
The Lakers had been gambling on defense throughout the evening, and the Suns weren’t able to capitalize much until, finally, Ariza and Vujacic trapped Hill at midcourt, leaving Nash open in the corner for a triple. He responded with a swish … but was immediately answered with back-to-back jumpers from Ariza and Odom (the latter a cold-blooded pull-up three in transition) that made it 89-71, giving the Lakers their biggest lead. In 29 minutes for Odom, L.A. got 13 points, eight boards, two dimes and a swipe. The bench is back in business.
Another extended timeout allows me to make a playoff prediction, but first let’s look at the current standings: Lakers (8-1); Utah (8-4); Denver (8-4); Phoenix (8-4); Houston (7-5); Portland (7-5); New Orleans (5-5); Golden State (5-6).
San Antonio (5-6) and Dallas (5-7) are lurking, however, and I’m going to put the Spurs into the playoffs as the seven or eight seed, giving the top six spots to the Lakers, Jazz, Suns, Rockets, Nuggets and Hornets. That leaves the Blazers, Mavericks and Warriors to battle it out with the Spurs for those final two spots. If I were faced with making a firm prediction right now vs. listening to the Arizona State marching band for an hour, I’d say that San Antonio and Portland get in.
As Phoenix tries to avoid losing their second-straight game for the first time this year after dropping a game to Utah the other night, they’ll have quite some work to do against a Lakers’ defense that’s hardly afforded any easy hoops to a team used to getting layups, dunks and open threes. A Bryant free throw at the 5:28 mark made the margin 15, which seems a lot to ask. Yet, surely the Lakers remember what New Orleans managed to do in the final six minutes a few games back…
Arizona State may have produced the most recent AL MVP honoree, but his career, if anything, was hurt by ASU. Just kidding Ty.
With 4:18 remaining after Vujacic canned a jumper, both teams went to the bench as Terry Porter effectively ceded the victory to L.A. Case in point: something called “Louis Amundson” is playing for Phoenix. That’ll do it. The final score now matters not, but I’ll check back in from the bus with some postgame thoughts … Unless the internet hates me again … sigh.
That’s 9-1 for the Lakers, who remain undefeated on the road. Bye.