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These Lakers can dig it

Times Staff Writer

The camaraderie finally appeared. Kobe Bryant actually exhaled. The Lakers didn’t let their season slip away.

It took a few days, but the Lakers finally checked into their first-round series, beating the Phoenix Suns, 95-89, and slicing the Suns’ lead to 2-1 Thursday at Staples Center.

Bryant played a near-perfect game, a crowd made itself known with a most unusual chant, and the Lakers’ defense, of all things, pushed them to victory. Game 4 in the best-of-seven series is Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.

Bryant shook off a mildly sprained right ankle and unveiled his best game of the series -- 45 points, six rebounds and six assists, allowing the Lakers to move on from their humiliating 28-point loss in Game 2.

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It wasn’t easy, as evidenced by a 31-14 deficit in the first quarter, but the Lakers slowly but steadily made sure Phil Jackson wouldn’t be swept in a playoff series for the first time in his 16-year NBA coaching career. The Lakers also avoided the dreaded 3-0 deficit that no team in NBA history has ever figured out.

“When you’re in this position, you’re down 2-0, you put your tail between your legs and run or you fight,” Bryant said. “I made a statement earlier in the week that this game would be a good indicator to see how many fighters we have on this team. To a man, everybody stepped up and responded to the challenge.”

The Lakers started out in an 11-0 hole but hammered their way out of it, be it by Bryant’s acrobatic drives or Kwame Brown’s rumbling dunks. Lamar Odom was also a factor with 18 points and 16 rebounds. Aside from Brown, Odom and Bryant, the Lakers made only three of 24 shots.

Brown had 19 points and drove the Lakers down low, counter-punching the Suns’ run-and-gun offense by establishing himself inside on offense. It was strange to hear at Staples Center, a chant of a different type -- “Kwa-me, Kwa-me” -- but it happened late in the third quarter as the Lakers’ center kept bullying his way through the Suns, collecting dunk after dunk.

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“He had his way tonight,” Jackson said. “He had the type of game we’ve anticipated Kwame having.”

It had been a trying few days before the game, with Odom wondering aloud about the team’s camaraderie and Bryant acknowledging his frustration.

It was enough for Jackson to call a meeting Wednesday and write on the board the words “Crying” and “Whining.”

He said he had heard enough from other sources about the Lakers’ public sniping to warrant a team get-together.

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Jackson did the speaking -- pointing out that only losing teams point fingers at each other -- and the players did the listening. Then they went out a day later and outgunned the Suns.

“Blame is no way to go at this time of the season,” Jackson said Thursday.

Blame stayed away from Game 3, to say the least.

“We were out there having fun,” forward Luke Walton said. “Everyone was jumping up and down and excited for each other. That was what we’ve been missing the last few weeks. I just hope we can carry this newfound chemistry to Sunday. I hope we don’t start hating each other.”

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It helps that the Lakers were able to overturn a nagging inability to beat teams with a winning record, defeating an over-.500 opponent for the first time since a Feb. 26 victory in Utah.

They were also much better defensively after allowing a 68-point first half in Game 2. The Suns never rose after a 31-point first quarter, scoring 20 points in the second quarter, 19 in the third and another 19 in the fourth.

Shawn Marion had a quiet 10 points and Steve Nash also had 10 points to go with 13 assists. The Lakers dominated on the boards, taking an impressive 19 offensive rebounds to six for the Suns.

Leandro Barbosa’s three-pointer from the corner tied the score at 89-89 with 2:03 to play, but the Lakers answered. Odom scored down low, Marion missed a short one-handed runner, and Bryant made an 18-foot turn-around from the left side.

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Brown then came up with a big defensive play, blocking Barbosa’s layup attempt with 40.9 seconds left.

“Even after the sloppy start, we still stayed positive, and that’s the key,” Brown said. “I don’t think I saw in anyone’s eyes that it was over.”

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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