The Phoenix Suns would love for America to believe that they were simply dizzy Wednesday night, dazed by a couple days of guesswork about which Kobe Bryant they'd see.
Lakers stirred, Suns shaken
But that's not it.
They look like a team preoccupied with something far more real and draining.
The Suns have seen their playoff bracket. They're well aware that neither of those 60-win Texas powers come into view until the conference finals. They know, most of all, that they're supposed to run freely and score liberally in first-round home games against a No. 7 seed.
Instead . . .
The search is on. Not for Forty Point Kobe, though.
The search is on for the care-free Suns of yore, because these Suns give you the feeling -- even when you're not in the building with them -- that they're thinking about more than Bryant's Lakers.
The Suns were so obviously dragged down by so many timid performances in Game 2 -- starting with Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas and Leandro Barbosa -- that their coach was almost forced to take the unusual step of publicly acknowledging the "weight on our shoulders" after this 99-93 defeat.
"It just seems like, 'Oh, God, if we don't get beyond the first round it's all been a failure,'" Mike D'Antoni said at his NBA TV postgame press briefing, volunteering his read on the Suns' body language.
Putting the Suns in such a state in a span of two games -- Steve Nash, remember, is about to be re-named MVP for what Phoenix achieved in the previous 82 games without the injured Amare Stoudemire -- is quite an achievement. Even for proven champions like Bryant and Phil Jackson.
Yet it's just as obvious that player and coach, famously more cold than hot throughout their three-peat days, have never been more in sync. Bryant is giving Jackson his best Nash impression, creating comfortable shooting and passing positions for his teammates when the traps come and coaching them into the right spots on the floor and preferring to mostly stay in QB mode when, again, no one would have been surprised if he chose to take 30 or 40 shots.
That was the reflex anticipation mere hours after word spread that Nash will soon be named as just the ninth back-to-back MVP in league history. Bryant was indeed more aggressive offensively than he was in a passive Game 1, especially in the second half as Phoenix tried to overturn a 17-point deficit, but the cumulative effect of his efficiency (29 points on just 24 shots) hurt the hosts more than any single dagger.
Plus he's getting copious amounts of help, which is more than Nash can say. Lamar Odom's length, growing composure and inside-outside versatility, for starters, is dominating Marion at both ends, after Marion complained in recent weeks that he should be mentioned as MVP material as much as Nash.
Kwame Brown and Luke Walton, meanwhile, predictably couldn't match their Game 1 production inside, but the much-maligned Sasha Vujacic offset their slippage by calmly draining three significant 3-pointers. Vujacic had 11 of the Lakers' 21 bench points . . . compared to four points total from the Phoenix subs.
"I know he's a European guard who hasn't shot the ball like a European guard [in the NBA]," one scout told me, "but Sasha has always been fearless."
Of course, that pretty much describes every Laker so far.
"We're so young," Kobe said with a laugh, "we really don't know any better. It's funny, but it's kind of working to our advantage."
So the Lakers take a 1-1 series back home, with the media inquisition in advance of Friday's Game 3 sure to be focused on how much of the No. 2 seed's confidence they've taken away. L.A.'s commitment to getting the ball as close to the rim as possible, to capitalize on the Suns' lack of size and frontcourt depth, has sufficiently slowed the Suns to the point that they're suddenly questioning their ability to run.
D'Antoni struggles to believe it, because that's never happened since Nash arrived, but he's not denying it.
"We look like we're a little afraid to get going," he said. ". . . We've got to bust through some barriers."
In other words, D'Antoni and Nash have to be even better now than they were all season, when they were even better than they were last season.
The good news for the gloomy Suns?
Mr. MVP has resuscitated this team twice already this season, first when the Suns started the season 4-5 after losing Stoudemire to knee surgery and again more recently when Amare's comeback lasted only three games. Nash tried to do it in Game 2 by submitting his best Kobe impression, with an aggressive 29 points, but he'll apparently have to do even more if the Lakers continue to be the looser aggressors.
Or unless the Suns, as a group, can lighten up.
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter marks off No. 15 on the countdown to the championship banner after a 109-98 Game 2 win over the Bucks. Detroit needs 14 more playoff wins for a true banner day.
Why is Kobe ditching No. 8 for No. 24? Here's eight of your pet theories...
I think that Kobe decided to wear No. 24 because No. 8 makes him look fat.
He no longer likes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and is now supporting Jeff Gordon.
Maybe he's going to sign and sell all his "8" equipment and paraphernalia on eBay since they're guaranteed to be collector's items and sell for ridiculous prices. I'd do it.
I don't know why he is changing his number to 24 but he should change it to 81 because No. 8 is No. 1 and because of that magical game against the Raptors.
He thinks himself one step ahead of Michael Jordan, so he is adding one to the number 23.
Because with Lamar, they are 24/7. Nike marketing.
I think it is obvious that Kobe was intimidated (as most Americans are) by Jack Bauer (of the TV show "24") and forced to switch.
Because 8 + 24 = 32 . . . and that's the "Magic" number. Go Lakers!
Brian (Fort Worth, TX): What is your reaction to Avery Johnson winning Coach of the Year? I think it is a superb choice, as he successfuly brought a defensive attitude to the team without sacrificing much from their offensive prowess. I am extremely excited that he will be the Mavs coach for many years to come.
Ric Bucher: Avery was second on my ballot, so obviously I feel he was worthy of consideration. He was as valuable as any component they had. But this gets to the heart of why Dirk wasn't a serious consideration for first on my MVP ballot -- there are a lot of elements that went into their great season. Dirk was no doubt a big part of it, but I'd argue Avery and the defensive attitude he instilled was a bigger part. That, and the tremendous depth Dallas has. In any case, the future is indeed bright with The Lil General at the helm.
Ryan (New Jersey): How about answering a question about the Nets-Pacers series? What's going to happen in Indiana? Do you see the Pacers falling apart and the series ending in 5?
Ric Bucher: Pacers are Denver East when it comes to chemistry. They're not quite that bad, but they're not great. Indy will be a tough out because Rick Carlisle has enough solid guys and a methodical system that will always give him a shot at a win in the final minutes. But the team's toughest-minded, most solid players are either back-ups (A. Johnson, A. Croshere, J. Foster) or young (Danny Granger). I will say this: Jermaine O'Neal is doing a great job of improving his market value right now.
A.J. (Chicago): Steve Nash winning another MVP is ridiculous. So-called analysts dismiss the likes of Boris Diaw before the season, and when it turns out he's actually good, Nash is credited with *making him* that good. I'd like to hear the explanation for that, considering the team's +/- is better with Diaw on the floor without Nash than it is with Nash on the floor without Diaw.
Ric Bucher: You can't just talk about Diaw to make your case. Give me the plus-minus of Raja Bell and James Jones as well. Nash and D'Antoni's system have made them all more effective than they ever were. Bryan Colangelo and Mike did a great job of identifying players who would fit well into the system. But Nash is the guy who makes it go. As Phil Jackson noted, they don't run plays, they just let Nash create and feed everyone.
Sure, Kobe Bryant got his 29 points. But the Lakers' Game 2 defeat of the Suns was a team effort. "He stayed very well inside of what we're trying to do," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Lakers Tie Series
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Pau Gasol has reason to be frustrated. His Grizz went 16 straight possessions without scoring. The Mavericks defeated the Grizzlies 94-79 to take a 2-0 series lead.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The Grizzlies extended their postseason losing streak to 10 games, spanning the franchise's entire history, in a 94-79 loss to the Mavericks. Over the last 20 years, only two other teams lost 10 consecutive playoff games: the Nuggets, 11 (1988-1994) and Trail Blazers, 10 (2000-2003).
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Do you believe that Kobe will break out for a 50-point game at some point in the series?
Broussard: I expect the Lakers to go back to their typical style pronto. Kobe will go for at least 40 in Game 2. If he doesn't get 50 in a game this series, it won't be because he didn't put up enough shots like in Game 1.
Hollinger: I still think it will happen, just because he averaged nearly a point a minute during the season and he's likely to play 47 or 48 minutes a night against Phoenix.
Legler: I think Kobe will have at least one 50-point game in the series because the Lakers are an inferior team and Kobe will get increasingly frustrated and desperate as the series progresses. As that happens, he will continue to force the issue and take matters into his own hands. Combined with the fact that he is the best offensive player in the NBA and the Suns are a poor defensive team, it all adds up to Bryant putting up huge numbers at some point.
Perdue: Yes, he will have to for the Lakers to win.
Bucher: Yes. Because either Kwame and Lamar are going to punish the Suns enough that they'll have to pay more attention to them (and thereby less to Kobe) or going to Kwame and Lamar will not produce wins and they'll simply see if Kobe can go crazy and get one.
O'Brien: No, because it's playoff basketball and opponents are not going to let that happen easily. He will score in the mid-30s a couple times, however.
Armstrong: Absolutely. If success is the goal, then Kobe has to do what is necessary to accomplish that.
Stein: Yes. Kobe is more capable than anyone in this league when it comes to quickly finding another gear or three, and there's a good chance that the struggles of his limited supporting cast will force him to fire away.
Kevin (Cleveland): LeBron said he doesnt believe in pressure. So is it safe to assume he'll bounce back in game 3? He made some stupid mistakes Tuesday.
Bill Simmons: He was absolutely atrocious last night, but he's still the best 21-year-old player ever, and he's still ahead of MJ at the same age. My biggest problem with LeBron was that he seems to play differently after he gets whacked a couple of times, seems like you can take him out of his game. Cleveland needs to find him an enforcer like what MJ had with the Bulls in the 80's (Oakley). Or else. Bron Bron seems like he's too nice of a guy.
Christian (High Point, NC): Sacramento had been routed in Game 1 and lost Artest for Game 2. Then they almost win last night before folding in overtime. Where does Barry's in-and-out 3 rank? Are we talking stomach-punch game?
Bill Simmons: It would have been except that Rick Adelman was involved, so the possibility of an incredible collapse was always there. That game couldn't have been more entertaining, and that's even before we discuss Jalen Rose, who was 3x-4x more entertaining than I thought he would be. It's now clear that all sideline reporters should be current NBA players. It's a stupid job, anyway, why not have a real player trying to pretend he's a broadcaster?
Rafae (Vermont): There's a headline on the front page of ESPN.com that says Nash is rumored to win the MVP. Right now I have him behind Kobe, LeBron, and even Dirk. How on earth could Nash win this thing?
Bill Simmons: I don't know what to say anymore... he has been no more or less valuable over the past 2 years than Jason Kidd was for the 2002 and 2003 Nets ... and yet, he's a back-to-back MVP. It's ridiculous. LeBron and Kobe were the 2 best players in the league this season. It's not even an argument. I would NOT want to be against Kobe Wednesday.
Etan (Washington Heights, NY): Where does the Heat getting all their fans to wear white rank on all-time lame-o sports gimmicks? I am putting it right between the rally monkey and the YMCA.
Bill Simmons: The Heat fans need to give it up -- they are the lamest fans in the NBA. How many times have we seen a close playoff game with empty seats at midcourt? They are almost like watching 18,000 foreigners attending their first American game.