Lakers are off to a scorching start in Western Conference finals against Suns
Kobe Bryant’s knee looked fine, no doubt about it. So did the Lakers, indisputably.
Instead of getting run off the court, the Lakers simply ran through the Phoenix Suns with a convoy of Bryant, two power forwards and a message to the remaining NBA heavyweights in a laughably easy 128-107 victory Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Bryant scored 40 points, Pau Gasol had 21, Lamar Odom was large off the bench with 19 points and 19 rebounds, and the Lakers shot 58% at Staples Center, more than enough to make their followers forget all the injury talk for one very significant night.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Wednesday, assuming the Suns have recovered by that time.
How lopsided was it? Lakers fans began chanting for free promotional tacos with seven minutes to play, the Suns down by an eternity, the Lakers on their way to a seventh consecutive victory.
The preamble to Game 1 was about the injured knees of Bryant and Andrew Bynum, with Bryant even skipping practice for an entire week, opting for rest and therapy on his swollen right knee after the Lakers’ four-game sweep of Utah.
All he did Monday was uncork the 11th 40-point playoff game of his career.
“I practice so much during the season, and in my off-season I work a lot,” Bryant said. “To take a week off, I’m not going to lose all the work I put in prior to that.”
He got to the free-throw line often, making 11 of 12, and also had five rebounds and five assists. He made 13 of 23 field-goal attempts and was particularly pointed in the third quarter, scoring 21 points on seven-for-10 shooting.
“Kobe kind of controlled the whole game,” Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said. “When he’s making his jumper like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Bryant had more than an ounce of fluid drained from his knee near the start of the Lakers’ series against Utah, a considerable amount for that part of the body, but he has responded well since the procedure, averaging 32 points in the Lakers’ four-game sweep of the Jazz before going for 40 against the Suns.
The fact he had the knee drained was an obvious admission of how bad he felt.
“I can’t remember how many times I’ve ever heard of him having it drained before — maybe once or twice,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s a concern, but we’re dealing with it and I think we have it under control.”
Bryant tried to downplay the procedure, a predictable response for a player who thoroughly dislikes discussing his injuries.
“I feel a couple pounds lighter,” he said.
Bynum, meanwhile, continued to stall on the court with torn cartilage in his right knee, scoring only four points in Game 1 after totaling six in the last two games of the Utah series.
Not that it mattered with Bryant, Gasol (10-for-13 shooting) and Odom playing the way they did. The Lakers excelled on offense, even making 47% of their three-point attempts (eight for 17), and buried the Suns in the paint, 56-36.
“They’re really tall,” said bemused Suns guard Steve Nash, who had 13 points and 13 assists. “It cuts down on a lot of our opportunities.”
The Lakers score-by-quarters was almost staggering: 35-27-31-35.
Bryant looked fine from the start, elevating over Channing Frye for a 17-foot fade-away as the first quarter ended with the Lakers ahead, 35-26.
There were even shades of Showtime in the third quarter, the Lakers extending from a 62-55 halftime edge with a relentless attack. On one play, Gasol sent a no-look bounce pass from the low post to Bryant, who scored on a layup and was fouled. Then Bryant dunked on a fastbreak on the Lakers’ next possession, good for an 89-72 lead.
Toward the end, with the game securely in the Lakers’ favor, a fan held up a sign, “Do your math: 24 > 23,” at least one person’s proof that Bryant, not LeBron James, was the NBA’s best player.