Lakers limping into Western Conference finals


Finally, there will be a game.

The Lakers haven’t played since completing a sweep of Utah a week ago, but the circumstances are more considerable, the results more weighty when they begin the Western Conference finals Monday against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center.

They’re four victories away from a 31st appearance in the NBA Finals, but they’ll get there only if Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum shake off knee injuries that have basically kept them off the practice court the last week.

Bryant recently had a significant amount of fluid drained from his swollen right knee, The Times has learned, and hasn’t practiced since the last round. Bynum practiced only once and said the torn cartilage in his right knee was “getting a little worse” after making it through Saturday’s scrimmage.

Ready or not, here come the run-and-gun Suns.

“We need some different company out on the court,” Phil Jackson said with a smile Sunday after yet another day of practice.

Jackson was a little more somber when discussing Bryant and Bynum, the former averaging a solid 32 points a game in the conference semifinals, the latter totaling only six points the last two games against the Jazz.

Jackson, on Bryant: “He came out [Sunday] and shot a little bit and tried to get in rhythm. We hope that he’s on board and his game is right at that point where it needs to be.”

Jackson, on Bynum: “I thought he played well [Saturday] and we’re hopeful that he’s going to be at that level.”

Neither Bryant nor Bynum spoke to reporters Sunday, but it’s been unusual to see Bryant off to the side watching and Bynum padding around in flip-flops as teammates run up and down the court at the team’s El Segundo training facility.

Their teammates have shrugged off their absence.

“At this point of the year, we need those guys during the game,” forward Lamar Odom said. “If they’ve got something that’s ailing or something that’s aching, that’s bothering them, I’d much rather have them ready for game time.”

Phoenix won’t take pity on the Lakers, bringing an offense that created a sweep in the last round, the Suns throttling the San Antonio Spurs behind the ageless legs of Steve Nash, the lively pick-and-roll game of Amare Stoudemire and the suddenly consistent shooting of Jason Richardson.

The Suns are shooting an impressive 41.7% from three-point range and averaging 105.8 points in the playoffs, almost five more than the Lakers. They will push the pace with the ever-crafty Nash in an up-tempo offense that somehow has a degree of control to it.

“It’s not so full-out run as, say, Oklahoma [City],” Jackson said. “This team has some sense behind what they’re doing on their runs.”

The Lakers will counter by pounding the ball down low to Pau Gasol and, if possible, Bynum. They also have put a premium on getting offensive rebounds to limit the Suns’ fastbreak opportunities.

“That’s something we’re going to focus on,” Odom said.

The Suns will have gone eight days since their last game, one more than the Lakers, and they’ll have a minor slice of history on their side, having eliminated the Lakers in the first round in 2006 and 2007.

On the other hand, the playoffs haven’t exactly been kind to a franchise that has never won an NBA championship and hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since losing to Chicago in six games in 1993.

What next, Artest?

It’s been a while since Ron Artest has been noticed on defense . . . and it might be a while longer.

He did a top-notch job on Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant in the first round, but then he shadowed unheralded Utah forward C.J. Miles and now gets low-scoring veteran Grant Hill.

If the Lakers advance to the Finals, Artest will guard Orlando’s Vince Carter or Boston’s Paul Pierce, but can he stay interested until then if the Lakers manage to get past the Suns?

“I don’t get bored,” said Artest, who said he would assist in other ways. “Help defense — block shots, get steals, deflections. Maybe I’m not in the spotlight, but as a team we’re in the spotlight.”

There’s a slight chance Artest will be matched up against Richardson, who is on a playoff roll, averaging 21.9 points through two rounds. Hill averaged only 9.5 points through two rounds.

Where’d he go?

Reserve forward Luke Walton looked as if he had moved off the end of the bench with a seven-point game in the series opener against Utah.

Then he played a combined nine minutes over the next three games.

“I felt like I was playing well, felt like I was in a good rhythm,” Walton said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back into that rotation.”

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.

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