Lakers: NBA's Best Reality Show
It was L.A.'s second straight victory, which these days means progress -- but not to Phil Jackson of course.
"Oh, we're a powerhouse now," Jackson said afterward, with a feigned sense of triumph just dripping off of those words. With the wins coming on consecutive nights against the 11-24 Pistons and now the 14-19 Suns, and considering how far below expectations the Lakers have been performing since the end of December, you can perhaps understand Jackson's lack of enthusiasm. But he did concede a few bright spots.
"I liked the start of the game, I liked the way the bench came off both in the first period and the third period," Jackson said. "They gave us a real bump right off the bench."
The Lakers did a lot right in this one, however, especially early, when the team looked as good as it has all season during a stellar first quarter. Kobe Bryant, who started the previous night 0-for-9 from the field in the opening frame, played within the game to start and didn't even attempt a shot until half the period was gone, yet still scored an efficient seven points on 3-of-4 shooting. Andrew Bynum was both agile and dominant, and (as Jackson mentioned) the bench provided a spark by combining to make four of its six shots for 11 points.
All of this went on while L.A. put together a 16-0 run in the period, which was started by Bryant's first jumper of the game, and included a flying dunk down the lane by Bynum on a pass from Odom, which forced a Suns timeout in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
That first quarter was a spark for the team as a whole, giving them a glimpse of the potential that they have been largely unable to deliver for sustained stretches to this point in the season. The final quarter might have been a spark for Ron Artest.
News of a confrontation between Artest and Jackson during practice surfaced on Tuesday, with Artest saying he was hurt by the details of the story being made public.
"That hurts because I just don't want to be a part of any controversy. I don't want to be a part of any conflict," Artest said. "I don't want to be a part of anything like that. That's why for something like that to be said is kind of weird. I won't really say anything on that.
"I've just come too far; I've worked too hard pushing ego aside to have something like that come out."
When Jackson was asked about it before Wednesday's game, he claimed not to remember the incident, saying "Refresh my memory, I can't remember what we talked about [Tuesday]."
Artest similarly claimed memory loss after the game when the topic came up.
During the game, it was clear that both men had put the incident behind them. Because of the Suns' zone defense that had forced the Lakers into some late struggles, Jackson was forced to go with a smaller lineup that featured more shooters to close things out -- a lineup that included Artest.
Phoenix had cut L.A.'s fourth quarter lead from eight points to just one with 2:24 to play. After Shannon Brown made a couple of free throws to extend it to three, and after Vince Carter missed a jumper for the Suns on the other end, it was Artest time. Bryant drove the lane and drew two defenders, and from almost all the way underneath the basket, kicked it out to Artest, who was all alone in the corner.
"I knew he was over there," Bryant said. "We're always supposed to have a guy over there. Always."
Artest was there, and no one was near him. The Suns didn't even bother trying to close on him, really. Artest took his time, gathered himself, and calmly knocked down the shot, a three-pointer with a minute and a half remaining that took the Laker lead back up to six and all but sealed it.
"I had a lot of time, it wasn't a hesitation," Artest said of hitting the big shot. "I didn't have to rush it, I was wide open, so there was really no sense rushing it."
Bryant saw the look in Artest's eyes, and was worried he might pass instead of shoot.
"He told me he was looking at me, because I was open under the basket," Bryant said. "So he was looking at me, trying to pass it, and I kind of turned around because I wanted him to shoot that s**t. I think it was a big shot for him."
Jackson's confidence to go to Artest in the clutch right after news of their confrontation came out, and Artest coming through when called upon are small examples over the course of a long season of how this team may once again be rounding into championship form. Bryant opening a game in a controlled and efficient manner after doing exactly the opposite the night before is another, and L.A. perhaps beginning to find itself by getting a couple of consecutive wins against two subpar teams is yet another.
And as the season progresses, this is the type of reality television that will actually be worth watching.