Forget that the Lakers have endured a two-game losing streak after falling to the Phoenix Suns, 118-111, last Sunday afternoon at US Airways Center; they still have the best record in the NBA.
The Lakers are 48-12, 11-3 since center Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury, and have 22 games left.
At this point, there isn’t any need for concern, but what should be noted is that they finish strong and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. San Antonio (39-18) played at Portland, and could be seven games behind with a victory.
As expected, shooting guard Kobe Bryant led the way with a game-high 49 points and 11 rebounds followed by center Pau Gasol’s 30 points with seven boards.
Power forward Lamar Odom fouled out after tallying four points and six rebounds. No one else reached double figures, with small forward Trevor Ariza adding nine points and five rebounds.
Last season, the Lakers finished 57-25 during the regular season, advanced to the NBA Finals, pushed the Boston Celtics to six games, but lost by 39 points in the clincher. They’re looking for a significantly different outcome this time.
Playing with two starters missing due to injury – point guard Steve Nash and power forward Amare Stoudimire – the Suns (34-25) entered the fourth quarter ahead, 91-81, but the Lakers made it close.
A three-pointer by former UCLA standout Matt Barnes with two minutes showing gave the Suns a 112-103 lead, and helped secure the win.
Barnes scored a season-best 26 points, grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, and had a co-best seven assists.
On Thursday at Staples Center, the Lakers trounced the Suns, 132-106, and followed that with their worst effort this season at Denver the next night.
Shooting 29.8 percent, the second-lowest since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers dropped a 90-79 decision, with Bryant scoring 29 points, Gasol 18 and Odom 12 points.
Then again, that’s life in the NBA, where one night you can’t miss, and the next it’s like you’re learning how to play.
One-time Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal posted his second impressive outing. After a 45-point performance against visiting Toronto on Friday, the 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound giant had a team-high 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting from the field and seven-of-12 from the free-throw line.
O’Neal turns 37 this month, and with his weight down from a high of 375 pounds, said after Sunday’s effort that he feels strong.
“They said I’ve been away, but I’ve never left. I can’t be stopped. The only time I’ve been stopped is when I’ve been injured.”
The Suns are on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs, where eight teams from the Western and Eastern Conference battle for the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy.
Phoenix shot 55.8 percent from the floor (43 of 77), connected on six of 18 from the three-point line, led 34-26 after the first quarter, 66-56 at the half, and appear to be playing with more enthusiasm under interim Head Coach Alvin Gentry.
Point guard Leandro Barbosa dropped in 22 points with seven assists, and power forward Grant Hill added 17 points with six rebounds for the Suns.
Now it’s a waiting game to see if Phoenix makes the postseason. We know the Lakers will be there.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.