PHOENIX // It is funny how the NBA works, although the Los Angeles Lakers did not see much humour in it. The Lakers embarrassed the Phoenix Suns by 26 points last Thursday but the tables were turned on Sunday, as an under-strength squad stuck it to them 118-111. Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash did not play for the Suns, but their centre Shaquille O'Neal did, and that was the beginning of a series of problems for the Lakers, who lost two consecutive road games for the first time since December.
O'Neal followed up a 45-point outburst on Friday against the Toronto Raptors with 33 points against the Lakers, who were powerless to stop him down low. They also forgot about Matt Barnes, who encroached on triple-double territory with 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Kobe Bryant made 18 of a season-high 38 attempts and scored 49 points, but he and Pau Gasol (30 points) were the only Lakers to score in double figures.
"We're going through a period where everybody's just kind of tired," Bryant said. "It happens. We saw Boston kind of go through it. Everybody kind of goes through it. These two games, we've been playing lethargic. It's that point in the season and we've hit it." The Lakers posted a season-low in points in a 90-79 loss on Friday in Denver, but the stranger thing was how they beat the Suns, 132-106, making Sunday's final score a 33-point reversal between the two teams.
"It's tough to understand how you can beat a team by 30 and then, next game, lose by 10. It doesn't make a lot of sense," Gasol said. O'Neal scored at will before fouling out with 44 seconds left. He scored more than 30 points in consecutive games for the first time since March 2004, while he was with the Lakers. It was also the most points he scored against the Lakers since being traded by them in July 2004.
To make matters worse, one of Bryant's front teeth was loosened after he was elbowed in the mouth by the Suns guard Leandro Barbosa in the third quarter. Bryant called time-out after getting hit but returned to the game. In other games, the Detroit Pistons defeated the Boston Celtics 105-95 while the Cleveland Cavaliers escaped with an 88-87 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
The Dallas Mavericks cruised to a 109-98 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Utah Jazz upended the Golden State Warriors 112-104, and the Portland Trail Blazers trounced the San Antonio Spurs, 102-84. The New Orleans Hornets helped themselves to a 99-96 victory over the New Jersey Nets, while the Indiana Pacers had a 100-94 triumph over the Denver Nuggets.
Finally, the Houston Rockets overcame a sluggish first half to withstand the Minnesota Timberwolves to run away with a 105-94 victory. * With agencies