Bryant’s 40 leads Lakers
LOS ANGELES — Even on a balky knee, Kobe Bryant had no problem giving the Los Angeles Lakers 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 over the Phoenix Suns on Monday night.
Pau Gasol had 21 points for the top-seeded Lakers, who won their seventh straight playoff game and snapped the Suns’ six-game streak with a phenomenal second half, highlighted by Bryant’s 21-point third quarter following an off-week during which he barely stepped on the Lakers’ practice court to rest his litany of minor injuries.
“He’s the best scorer in the league,” said Odom, who set a career playoff high for rebounds in his most assertive game of the current postseason. “Drives, fadeaways with his back to the basket, inside-outside, with his left hand. Time off is exactly what he needed.”
The defending NBA champions beat the third-seeded Suns at their own uptempo game when necessary, fluidly running the court to set up baskets for Bryant in his sixth straight 30-point game. Bryant then rested his sore knee for most of the fourth quarter in the 11th 40-point game of his playoff career.
“They played great, one of the best games I’ve seen them play in the playoffs this season,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “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.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Amare Stoudemire scored 23 points and Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists for the Suns, who hadn’t lost since April 24. Robin Lopez started at center and scored 14 points in his playoff debut, but Phoenix couldn’t keep up with the champs in its first conference finals appearance since 2006.
“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, whose injured eye didn’t bother him. “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 postseason date in five years, but the Lakers didn’t allow a week off to affect their remarkable execution.
Bryant alternated jumpers and strong drives while Los Angeles pulled away. His 13-for-23 shooting performance included three 3-pointers and 11 free throws with just one miss.
“Kobe carried a lot of the offense tonight, no doubt,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Bryant’s teammates were nearly as impressive despite a game offensive effort by the Suns, who ran into the same height problems faced by Utah and Oklahoma City earlier in the Lakers’ playoff run. Los Angeles made 58 percent of its shots and committed just nine turnovers in Game 1 — its third straight single-digit turnover game — while outrebounding the smaller Suns 42-34.
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 didn’t show any obvious effects from his injuries, and he even bounced back up after hitting his head on Jason Richardson’s knee during a drive in the first quarter.
The game began at the Suns’ favored tempo, with both clubs sprinting up and down for quick baskets. The Lakers rallied from an early deficit with 11 consecutive points, and their 35 first-quarter points — capped by a dynamic baseline jumper by Bryant over two defenders at the buzzer — were Los Angeles’ most in any quarter of the playoffs.
NOTES: Bryant last scored 40 points in the postseason during the opener of last year’s NBA finals against Orlando. … Lakers G Sasha Vujacic appeared in his first game of the postseason after missing the first two rounds with a sprained ankle. … Jackson swatted away another rumor of his imminent retirement before the game, saying he hadn’t thought about his future since the last time reporters asked him about it. … Bryant and Grant Hill got technical fouls for arguing with officials 57 seconds apart in the third quarter. … Larry David watched the game from the same eight-seat courtside section where his fictional alter ego infamously tripped Shaquille O’Neal during a first-season episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The crowd also included actors Jessica Alba, Dustin Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Sylvester Stallone and David Arquette.