After taking Monday off the Lakers were back in action on Tuesday night against their Pacific Division rivals from Phoenix. This was the first of four matchups between the two teams in 2012, and would be played on the Staples Center floor. The location was important for Los Angeles, who was 6-1 at home entering the game. The team’s only home loss was a final minute collapse against the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day.
There were several additional storylines going into Tuesday’s action other than the history between the two teams. This was the first time the Lakers would see Shannon Brown since the guard signed a free agent deal with the Suns last summer. It also brought Steve Nash to Staples after trade rumors of Nash landing in L.A. swirled around the internet for the last several days.
But, despite all the alternate stories heading into the game there was still action that needed to be decided on the court. The Lakers would be a little short-handed against Phoenix, as Josh McRoberts (toe) was sitting out once again. Joining McRoberts on the sideline Tuesday was Troy Murphy (gastroenteritis) and Jason Kapono (birth of twin daughters), meaning the Lakers would be especially thin on the frontline.
The Lakers took the floor to start the game but they appeared to leave their defense in the locker room. Nash and Channing Frye led the Suns to an early lead as the Lakers appeared stuck in cement. On offense the Lakers did look a little more competent, but were having trouble connecting on some of the looks they got.
Still, there were several encouraging signs for L.A. One of these signs was Pau Gasol, who looked very aggressive on the offensive end. The problem for Pau was that many of the shots he was taking simply weren’t falling. Gasol ended up shooting 1-6 from the field in the first quarter, but many of his looks were shots that he is normally able to make. Despite the fact that these shots weren’t falling, the offensive rotation did look strong for the Lakers in the first.
Thankfully for L.A. one player’s shot was falling in the first. Kobe Bryant shot 8-11 from the field in the first quarter, scoring 17 of the team’s first 25 points. After falling behind by nine halfway through the quarter the Lakers went on a 15-0 run to take the lead. It was a 15-point swing as the Lakers took a 25-19 lead at the end of the first.
Los Angeles rode their momentum from the end of the first into the second quarter to quickly push their lead to double digits. Unfortunately the good news ended there as the team quickly slipped back into hibernation. With Bryant carrying the majority of the offensive load in the first quarter the rest of the team found themselves out of sync. The Suns used this to their advantage with Bryant on the bench at the start of the second.
However, Bryant on the bench wasn’t the only reason the Lakers saw their lead slip away. Phoenix was able to out-work the Lakers frontline, especially on the boards. On multiple possessions the Suns found themselves with easy buckets after offensive rebounds. Opportunities like these allowed Phoenix to momentarily reclaim the lead in the second quarter. At least, until Bryant checked back in.
While Bryant wasn’t as hot in the second quarter as he was in the first, he was still the main driving force of the Los Angeles offense. After 17 first quarter points, Bryant added six more in the second. Four of those were from the free throw line, where Bryant spent the majority of the quarter.
One positive note for L.A. in the first half was the play of Luke Walton. The Lakers reserve hasn’t had much of an opportunity to play this season, but he really took advantage of his minutes tonight. With Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy sidelined due to injury, Walton played 13 minutes in the first half. During that time he was able to pull down five rebounds while passing out two assists, and the team was plus-17 when he was on the court.
Despite giving up the majority of their lead, Los Angeles still found themselves on top of the Suns at halftime, 46-42.
The third quarter followed the script of the first 24 minutes. The Lakers starters played relatively poorly outside of Bryant, and even Kobe saw himself coming back down to Earth after a hot start. The two teams traded baskets for the majority of the quarter, but without Bryant’s hot hand the Lakers were unable to build much of a lead.
But, just like we saw in the first half, once the bench came onto the floor the team started playing with some more emotion. After a very strong first half, Walton and Metta World Peace came back strong in the third. While neither World Peace or Walton contributed much on the offensive end, both were very active on the boards. In fact, through three quarters Walton and World Peace had a combined 13 rebounds, whereas Bynum and Gasol had just 15 total boards.
As mentioned above, Bryant’s shooting percentage dropped dramatically in the third. After starting 8-11 from the field Bryant was just 12-24 by the end of the quarter. Still, he was able to get to the line nine times through the third, connecting on eight of them. At the end of the third Bryant still led all scorers with 32 points, and the Lakers led Phoenix 73-68.
Entering the fourth the Lakers would have to find some offense with Bryant on the bench. That proved to be a difficult task for the Lakers, who didn’t receive much of an offensive boost from anybody other than Bryant throughout most of the game. However, even with Bryant on the bench the team managed to keep a lead, albeit a slim one.
The Suns were sitting pretty halfway through the quarter. After connecting on several open looks, Phoenix was down just one with Nash checking back into the game. The Los Angeles defense, which struggled for most of the night, once again was allowing the Suns to build confidence and get decent looks.
With the Suns down just a point and only five minutes left in the game, the Lakers put together a run that helped them seal the game. The good looks that Gasol was getting and missing the first finally started to fall down the stretch. Gasol connected on multiple midrange jump-shots that forced the defense to focus on someone besides Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers, fueled by Bryant, took off on a 10-0 run in the fourth to put the game on ice. During that stretch Bryant also surpassed the 40-point plateau for the first time this season, and helped the Lakers coast to a surprisingly easy victory.
For Los Angeles the only question to be answered during the last few minutes was whether or not Bryant would surpass 50 points. Bryant connected on a late jump-shot and two free throws to push to him to 48 but the clock ran out before he got the chance.
In the end the Lakers defeated the Suns, 99-83, to win their seventh straight game at home and improve their record to 7-4.