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It’s a Qualified Success Story

Times Staff Writer

In one smooth, easy sweep, the Lakers deconstructed their failures of last season and some carry-over issues from this one, securing a playoff spot Sunday by finally beating the Phoenix Suns.

Eighty-one games into the season, they proved they belonged among the top eight in the Western Conference, managing to overcome numerous late-game meltdowns, a rash of injuries and, lastly, the Suns, whom they hadn’t beaten in seven tries since Shaquille O’Neal left town.

Sun guard Steve Nash didn’t play, but another MVP candidate did, Kobe Bryant scoring 43 points in the Lakers’ 109-89 victory at Staples Center.

There was a communal exhale from Laker followers -- their team hadn’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1975 and 1976 -- yet also a sigh of satisfaction, the Lakers (44-37) winning for the 10th time in their last 13 games and continuing to play their best ball of the season.

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On top of it, they beat the team they will probably play in the first round of the playoffs. If Sacramento loses Tuesday to Seattle or the Lakers win Wednesday against New Orleans, the Lakers, as the seventh-seeded team, would begin a best-of-seven series Saturday or Sunday in Phoenix. If the Lakers finish eighth, they would play either San Antonio or Dallas.

“It doesn’t really seem like we were overly jumping for joy or anything like that, but it is a great accomplishment for us, being that we came from last season where we didn’t make it, this season nobody expected us to make it, and here we are,” Bryant said. “I’m very happy for the city. I know the city’s used to championships, and I am as well, but it’s one step at a time and this is a step in that direction.”

To be true, the Suns took as few steps as humanly possible Sunday.

Firmly entrenched as the West’s No. 2-seeded team, they went without Nash’s 19 points and 10.5 assists a game because of what the Suns called a bruised thigh.

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“The difference-maker in games like this would be somebody like him,” Laker Coach Phil Jackson said.

Starting guard Raja Bell (14.8 points per game) also sat out, because of a strained thigh. Both Nash and Bell are expected back for the playoffs, but the Suns were left Sunday with a starting lineup of Tim Thomas, Leandro Barbosa, Brian Grant (yes, that Brian Grant), Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion.

(Nash, for his part, was booed briefly when the scoreboard big screen showed him sitting in street clothes on the bench. He smiled and waved.)

The Lakers, who had lost to the Suns by an average of 11.3 points per game since the O’Neal trade, will take the victory, regardless of who did and didn’t put on a uniform.

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Smush Parker’s fastbreak layup provided a 16-1 Laker lead with 8:34 left in the first quarter, and the Lakers were never threatened from there. Their lead grew as large as 26. The Suns never led.

Another un-Sun-like stat: The Lakers had 12 fastbreak points, the Suns had none.

“We were dead and lifeless,” Phoenix Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It looked like it was Easter morning. It was one of those games they knew we didn’t need.”

Lamar Odom, coming off consecutive triple-double games, had 14 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Kwame Brown had 10 points and seven rebounds but slightly sprained his left ankle with 3:44 to go in second quarter. He went to the locker room but returned to the game.

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Jackson, inheriting a team that last season went 34-48 and 2-19 down the stretch, didn’t feel the need to plan a parade for simply making the playoffs. He has now qualified for postseason play in each of his 15 seasons as an NBA coach.

“I think that we knew we had enough talent,” he said. “But it is good to be back in the playoffs again. That’s an important step for this club because of the number of young players we have that haven’t been there in the playoffs and haven’t experienced that.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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The drive for 35

Assuming Kobe Bryant plays Wednesday in the Lakers’ final regular-season game, he needs to score three points to finish with a 35-point average. A look at players who have averaged at least 35 points in one season (minimum 70 games played):

*--* AVG PLAYER SEASON 50.4 Wilt Chamberlain 1961-62 44.8 Wilt Chamberlain 1962-63 38.4 Wilt Chamberlain 1960-61 37.6 Wilt Chamberlain 1959-60 37.1 Michael Jordan 1986-87 36.9 Wilt Chamberlain 1963-64 35.6 Rick Barry 1966-67 35.0 Michael Jordan 1987-88

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Source: NBA


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