When the halftime horn sounded in the Valley of the Sun, the Lakers knew they’d played six consecutive poor quarters. The evidence was clear: A mere 79 points scored in a Friday night loss to Denver, and a 10-point deficit to the Suns’ team shooting 60 percent from the field.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t feeling that.
Emerging from the locker room adorned in Shaq’s Superman cape (not literally) as if he were already on fire (NBA Jam style), Bryant exploded for 17 points in just under six minutes to give the Lakers a 75-70 lead.
Shaq’s Suns, however, weren’t interested in playing along after the burst subsided, going on to outscore the Lakers 21-6 to close the quarter just where they’d entered it – up by 10. The seesaw, however, tilted back towards the Lakers as Sasha Vujacic and Trevor Ariza (2) hit three triples in the fourth quarter’s first two minutes to chop the lead right back down to two.
From that point on, fans saw what they’d really been after: Kobe vs. Shaq, with the All-Star MVP’s trading blows on the same court upon which they’d earned their latest accolades. And while Bryant went off for 13 more points in the fourth to get to 49 on the day, Shaq’s presence in the paint (plus Matt Barnes’ three-point shooting) allowed the Suns to escape a furious comeback with a 118-111 victory.
Three things clearly hurt the Lakers: A huge free throw discrepancy (Phoenix shot 42 to their 20); settling for threes (L.A. made just 8-of-26) and a lack of low post defense (Phoenix scored 64 points in the paint to 48 from the Lakers).
While Shaq, who scored 33 points, earned many of the 32 personal fouls whistled on L.A. (to Phoenix’s 19), none was bigger than the one drawn by sub Louis Amundson. Exchanging some relatively minor arm contact with Lamar Odom, Amundson somehow drew the sixth personal foul from L.O., who was forced to take a seat on the bench – incredulous look and all – with 8:31 to go in the game after just 23 minutes and four points.
Bryant’s two free throws with 2:36 cut Phoenix’s lead to four, but Phoenix shot 10 free throws in the final two minutes to eventually bury the Lakers.
So, two tough road losses in a row … What does it mean?
Not much, to be fair.
More than anything else, the Lakers need a full week home in their own beds, which they’ll get for the first time since January as Memphis and Minnesota come to town. There’s been nary one opponent that hasn’t played the Lakers as if they were in a playoff showdown, and quite frankly it’s surprising that there haven’t been more letdowns.
Let’s get to the numbers:
Shots needed by Kobe Bryant to get to his 49 points. Bryant made all 10 of his free throws.
Season-high point total from Matt Barnes, who did little in L.A.’s romping of Phoenix in STAPLES on Thursday. Barnes made 5-of-7 threes, grabbed 10 boards, registered seven assists and grabbed three steals in a terrific all-around game.
Minutes played by a foul-plagued Lamar Odom, who committed a few silly fouls and was murdered by poor calls on a few others.
Game-high rebounding total from Kobe Bryant, who was ultra-aggressive on both ends of the floor. He added two assists, a steal and a block.
Of 18 shots missed by Shaquille O’Neal, for whom L.A. had no answer.
Lead changes in a game controlled primarily by the home team.