Lakers clinch playoff bid
By BETH HARRIS
By BETH HARRIS
LOS ANGELES — Helped by the absence of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant put on his usual one-man offensive show and the Los Angeles Lakers easily clinched a playoff berth.
Bryant made a late-season case for league MVP honors, scoring 43 points in a 109-89 rout of the Phoenix Suns yesterday.
"It doesn't really seem like we're overly jumping for joy, but it is a great accomplishment for us," he said. "We came from last season when we didn't make it. This season nobody expected us to make it and here we are."
The Lakers are back in the postseason for the first time since losing the 2004 NBA Finals to Detroit. Their seeding has yet to be decided, but they could face Phoenix in the first round.
"It is good to be back in the playoffs again. That's an important step for this club because of the number of young players we have that haven't been in the playoffs," said coach Phil Jackson, who was let go after losing the 2004 championship.
The Suns rested Nash and Raja Bell because of thigh-related injuries, leaving Shawn Marion to carry the load in Phoenix's first loss to the Lakers this season. He had 29 points and Leandro Barbosa added 16 before fouling out early in the fourth. Boris Diaw had 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his second straight triple-double and fourth of the season.
"They execute the same way. It's just that when Steve and Raja Bell come back, they have more waves to throw at you and they do it for 48 minutes," Bryant said.
The game was over shortly after it started because the Suns shot a woeful 37 percent from the floor and couldn't stop Bryant, who notched at least 40 points for the 27th time this season. He sat down for good with nearly six minutes left.
"We were dead and lifeless. It looked like it was Easter morning," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It was one of those games that they kind of knew we didn't need, and this was our third game in 3 1/2 days, and it looked like it."
Bryant made the game's first three baskets — on a driving layup, a steal and fast-break dunk and a 3-pointer. He also had a block of Marion and scored 25 points by halftime.
"To get smacked like that is not easy," the Suns' Brian Grant said. "We needed Steve and Raja to get healthy. Even Shawn needs a rest before the playoffs start."
The Lakers led by 13 after one quarter and by 21 at the break after scoring the first nine points of the second period.
"We really hustled, we got after them, played with a high energy level and rebounded the ball extremely well," Bryant said.
Bryant finished 11 of 28 from the floor and made 20 of 23 free throws as fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" during the game.
"I really appreciate the support. It just shows a lot of love," he said. "I don't go out and try to play for that. I go out to try to help us put Ws on the board."
Grant, a former Laker, would naturally pick Nash over Bryant for MVP.
"If you could give two MVPs out, I would say give it to both of them," he said. "But since there's only one, I've got to go with Nash, just because I play with him and I've seen all the things he can do to really help this team evolve and help players evolve."
Nash could only watch in street clothes from the bench, getting booed when his face appeared on the overhead scoreboard. He and Bell didn't talk to reporters after the game.
The Suns' roster is crowded with injuries days before the playoffs begin. Nash, who missed his second straight game, has a right thigh contusion; Bell has a left thigh strain; Amare Stoudemire underwent season-ending knee surgery 1 1/2 weeks ago; Kurt Thomas is out for the rest of the regular season because of a stress fracture in his right foot; and Dijon Thompson had right knee surgery last month.
"We were trying to work on some stuff out there. We weren't worrying about what they were doing," Marion said. "We lost, but at the same time, we were trying to see about certain matchups out there. We didn't get a win, but I think we got some stuff accomplished that we wanted to work on."
The Lakers stopped a couple of losing streaks against the Suns: four straight games at Staples Center and seven overall — the longest Los Angeles slide in series history.
Jackson used the blowout to get everyone some playing time with only Wednesday's game against New Orleans left before the playoffs open.
Lamar Odom, coming off consecutive triple-doubles, added 14 points and 11 rebounds. Smush Parker had 12 points and Kwame Brown 10.
Los Angeles led by 26 points in the third before Phoenix cut it to 13 early in the fourth. The Suns never got under double digits.