Injuries are troubling the Lakers' star, and he is still dangerous as he showed with 40 points in the first game of the Western Conference finals.
Ailing Bryant is making the Suns suffer
LOS ANGELES // Kobe Bryant dribbled toward the Lakers' bench, luring Channing Frye and Jason Richardson along with him. Bryant leaned back and launched a feather-soft jumper over Phoenix's double team, neatly beating the first-quarter buzzer. That is about when the Suns should have noted the bright yellow brace on Bryant's right knee is the colour of a caution sign.
Even with an injured knee and a litany of additional woes, Bryant still is among the most dangerous post-season scorers in NBA history - and he had no problem giving Los Angeles an early leg up in the Western Conference finals. Bryant scored 40 points, Lamar Odom added 19 points and 19 rebounds, and the Lakers opened the series with ruthless offensive efficiency in a 128-107 victory on Monday night. The teams meet again tonight for Game 2.
"Just being aggressive, playing my game," Bryant said. "Got shots, took them. Got lanes to the basket, took them." Pau Gasol had 21 points for the top-seeded Lakers, who won their seventh consecutive play-off game and snapped the Suns' six-game streak with a phenomenal second half, highlighted by Bryant's 21-point third quarter. He barely stepped on to the Lakers' practice court during the past week in order to rest his ailing knee, ankle, finger and back.
"I practice so much during the season," Bryant said. "In the offseason, I work a lot. To take a week off, I'm not going to lose all the work I put in prior to that." The defending NBA champions beat the third-seeded Suns at their own up-tempo game when necessary, fluidly running the court to set up baskets for Bryant in his sixth 30-point game in a row. Bryant then rested for most of the fourth quarter in the 11th 40-point game of his play-off career.
"They played great, one of the best games I've seen them play in the play-offs this season," said Alvin Gentry, the Suns coach. "Kobe kind of controlled the whole game. I thought we could have withstood the game that he had ... but when he's making his jumper like that, there's not a whole lot you can do about it." Amare Stoudemire scored 23 points and Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists for the Suns, who had not lost since April 24. Robin Lopez started at centre and scored 14 points in his play-off debut, but Phoenix could not keep up with the champions' height and 58 per cent shooting in the Suns' first conference finals appearance since 2006.
The Suns also ran into the same height problems faced by Utah and Oklahoma City earlier in the Lakers' play-off run. Los Angeles committed just nine turnovers in Game 1 ? their third successive single-digit turnover game ? while out-rebounding the smaller Suns 42-34. "They're probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on, so we've got to ... make everything as tough as possible," said Nash. "We played hard, but we didn't make enough shots, and we had a few too many breakdowns."
Both teams swept their second-round series to earn their third post-season date in five years. After a 62-point first half for the Lakers, Bryant alternated jumpers and strong drives while Los Angeles pulled away, making a 13-2 run in the third quarter. His 13-for-23 shooting performance included three three-pointers and 11 free throws with just one miss. "Kobe carried a lot of the offence tonight, no doubt," said Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach. "I will say he was going to shoulder the game. He was going to take it on. He's been very optimistic through the whole week. He felt like he had the amount of rest and shooting he had to have. He was attentive and involved [in practice]."
The Suns sent Bryant, Odom and the Lakers home for the summer in 2006 and 2007, and Los Angeles' veterans acknowledged a measure of revenge in their minds ? as long as they're healthy enough to do it. Jackson revealed before the game that Bryant's right knee was drained "a while ago," moving it to the top of the injury list for last season's NBA finals MVP. But Bryant showed no ill effects. "He's the best scorer in the league," said Odom. "Drives, fadeaways with his back to the basket, inside-outside, with his left hand. Time off is exactly what he needed." * AP