Suns 99, Lakers 94

With the Lakers on their last long road trip of the season, Phil Jackson reached his last chance to hand out books to his players. He said he has delivered a couple of books so far, has a couple of books with him and still has to buy a couple of additional books.

My informal survey of two players before Sundays game found that Ronny Turiaf has received his book and Andrew Bynum has not. Im most interested in learning what book Jackson selected for Vladimir Radmanovic but hes not on the trip.

Turiaf couldnt remember the exact title but said it was similar to the movie “Life is Beautiful and was a tale about the Germans and the French in World War II. He was about 55 pages into the book and thought it was a good choice for him.

“Personally, it makes me feel like part of the family, said Turiaf, who grew up in Martinique and played the equivalent of high school basketball in France. “He sees us as basketball players but he tries to learn where were from, what our backgrounds are.

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This is going to pain a lot of Lakers fans, but Raja Bell showed why hes one of the most undervalued NBA players Sunday. Not only did Bell defend Kobe Bryant all game, with an assist from Shawn Marion, but he was a difference-maker with his shooting as well.

Bell buried three 3-pointers in the last five-plus minutes of the third quarter as Phoenix built its first real cushion of the game. Bryant was screened on a couple of them and tried to collapse to help on drivers on the others.

In addition, Bell stepped to the line and sank two free throws with 18.1 seconds to play. You dont have to like Bell at all after the clothesline he delivered to Bryant in last years playoffs but hes a great value making midlevel exception money.

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Itll be interesting to see just how the Lakers organize their offense without Lamar Odom. They started a lot of sets with Bryant alone at the top of the floor or on the wing and ran a screen-and-roll from there.

Bryant said hed prefer not to operate that way, which gives the defense a better chance to load up against him. He finally got his wish to move to the wing in the fourth quarter, when Jackson used Sasha Vujacic and Smush Paker/Shammond Williams at guard.

Bryant hit a couple of turnaround jumpers and backed down Bell for a layup with 2:45 left. He joked after the game: “I was begging like a dog to get into the post. Its also worth noting that Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half.

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It was hard to watch Brian Cook in Sundays game and not think that hed be perfect for the Suns. Cook is a lethal shooter as is, but its hard to imagine just what he could do camping out behind the 3-point arc for Phoenix coach Mike DAntoni.

“Thats the game that Brian can play is open shots, Jackson said, “and when teams go to double team Kobe, Kobe knows where hes at.

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For all the cheers that Bryant has heard in visiting arenas this season, it was almost novel to hear him booed Sunday. There were a ton of Lakers fans (as always) in Phoenix but the “MVP chants also were reserved for Steve Nash instead of Bryant.

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Nash made two spectacular plays in the first half that I noticed didnt make the nightly highlight shows. They were a much higher degree of difficulty, at least, than the layups Smush Parker conceded in the second half.

The Suns ran one pick-and-roll with Marion in which Nash was almost a blur coming off the screen, flicking the ball behind his back on the dribble, before finding Kurt Thomas for a jumper.

With 1:48 left in the half, Nash circled around the basket and hung in the air long enough to draw the defense into thinking he was shooting before gunning a pass to Amare Stoudemire for a dunk.

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One play that was probably overlooked Sunday was Marion’s offensive rebound basket to beat the third-quarter buzzer. It enabled the Suns to take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter instead of five. Sasha Vujacic’s 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter might have made it a two-point game as a result.

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The Lakers continue to sit in no mans land in the Western Conference standings. They trail Houston by 3 1-2 games for fifth and lead the Clippers and Denver by 3 1-2 games for seventh and eighth.

Even though the Spurs have won eight games in a row, they still lead Utah by just a game for third. The Lakers most favorable path to the second land goes through Salt Lake City, so theres modest hope even with Lamar Odom out.

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

PHOENIX–The last time they walked onto the court at US Airways Center, the Lakers were handed a 31-point loss in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, bringing a decidedly unceremonious end to a feel-good season.

That also might have been the last time the Lakers were close to whole, before the sprained ankles and sprained knees, the separated shoulders and torn labrums, made a medical dictionary a must-have for this season.

Maybe that was why the Lakers felt as if they exceeded expectations in Sundays 99-94 loss to the Suns. With the cloud of Lamar Odoms potential season-ending injury hanging over them, the Lakers nevertheless pushed Phoenix to the final horn.

“A lot of people watching the game, considering all the guys that we have out, probably expected us to get blown out, Kobe Bryant said. “But I believe that we can win these games. We have a lot of guys out but were still going to be competitive and were going to be all right.

Now all the Lakers can do is hope for the best as Odom (torn labrum) and Luke Walton (sprained ankle) both see specialists today in Los Angeles. Walton could return on this four-game trip; Odom is waiting to learn if and when he will need surgery.

“We just have to unite and just play well together, Bryant said. “Thats the key. Hopefully, well get Luke back and thatll help out a lot because of his triangle recognition . . . and just continue to plug away.

In the first glimpse of life without Odom, Bryant finished with 31 points but was hounded into 11 of 28 shooting. He played nearly 45 minutes, including the entire second half, and also led the Lakers with six assists.

Brian Cook started in place of Odom and hit 8 of 15 shots in totaling 22 points and a career-best 14 rebounds. Yet the game was not without discord for the Lakers, as Smush Parker had an outburst on the bench in the fourth quarter.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson watched as Parker, who slipped into a black hole in the playoffs against the Suns, picked up three fouls in the first half and responded with a less-than-aggressive performance at both ends of the floor in the second half.

Parker gave up breezy layups to Steve Nash, who hit 7 of 10 shots and scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half. He also passed on a 3-pointer at the start of the fourth quarter, resulting in a 24-second violation for the Lakers.

So Jackson decided to make a change with 5:40 left after Nash staked the Suns to a 10-point lead, their largest of the game. He sent Shammond Williams for Parker during a timeout, a decision with which Parker voiced his disagreement.

“He wanted to play, Jackson said. “I had to take him out because I didnt think he was aggressive enough.

Jackson said he was looking to see what “punch Williams could bring and said he sensed Parker growing “despondent with every Nash layup. The coach went on to describe Parkers fourth-quarter play as being almost “flaccid.

After he was removed, Parker planted himself at the end of the bench the rest of the game and didn’t join the huddle during timeouts. Jackson said he talked to Parker, who finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting, afterward.

Williams, though, drained a 3-pointer with 3:19 remaining after Bryant drove and found him open. That made it 92-88 but the Lakers would get no closer than three points; Williams and Bryant each missed free throws in the last 1:37.

The Lakers were left to lament Cooks missed 3-pointer with 1:04 to play, a shot that could have made it a one-point game. Cook made 4 of 6 3-pointers after Jackson joked before the game about not knowing whom to start in place of Odom.

“Im just trying to fill in and help the team when I can, Cook said. “Phils going to use me how hes going to use me. I trust in him to use me the way he wants to use me. Right now, we just need to be together as a team and fight for the rest of this road trip.

Odom, meanwhile, will visit shoulder specialist Lewis Yocum today and faces the possibility of season-ending surgery. If that is the case, the Lakers hopes of making something out of this season would be greatly diminished.

“Really, its at best I would say anywhere from two to three weeks before well even know, Jackson said of Odoms fate. “Unless (Yocum) says, `Hey, an operations important. Lets get it done. That I doubt.

The Lakers will play the Suns twice more in the regular season and succeeded in holding the NBAs highest scoring team under 100 points. It was an accomplishment for the Lakers after giving up 116 points in Fridays loss to Sacramento.

“I dont think we played particularly well, Phoenix coach Mike DAntoni said. “It seemed like a lack of a little juice. The Lakers do a good job of imposing their style and rhythm . . . and it is easy to fall into that instead of figuring it out and amping it up.

With Phoenix scoring fewer than 28 points in every quarter, Bryant added, “I think we can be proud of the way that we played, especially defensively, considering the way that weve been playing.

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