Even when they lose now, they win.
Bell's toll could be suspension
In this series?
Even when they're forced to absorb a Kwame Brown bombshell before the Game 5 tip.
Even when they've played the final 3:11 without an ejected Kobe Bryant.
The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves dealing with all of that Tuesday night and departed U.S. Airways Center having incurred a 114-97 pounding from the Phoenix Suns to force a Game 6 back in L.A. on Thursday.
Not that the Suns could celebrate too wildly.
Their offense finally looked Sun-like, and Boris Diaw racked up a near triple-double (25 points, 10 boards and nine assists) after collecting his Most Improved Player trophy, but they departed the scene with plenty to sweat themselves. Reason being: It's hard to imagine Phoenix will be dressing Raja Bell, its second-best player throughout this series, for the game they need to win to keep the season going.
The normally steady Bell took an uncharacteristically foolish risk by clotheslining Bryant with his left arm with 7:33 to play and the Suns up 14. The hit came in response to an elbow to Bell's jaw from Bryant minutes earlier, and Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said taunting from the Lakers' bench was another trigger, but there was little doubt which hit looked more forceful and premeditated.
Compared to infractions earlier in the playoffs that resulted in one-game suspensions for Sacramento's Ron Artest and Miami's James Posey, Bell will be fortunate if he isn't hit with more than a one-game ban.
It would seem only two forces can save him from missing Game 6.
No. 1: The utter unpredictability from a league office that suspended Artest and Posey but didn't assess Denver's Reggie Evans more than a fine for grabbing the privates of Clippers center Chris Kaman.
No. 2: A most atypical reaction to the foul from Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Kobe and Phil, in fact, stunned observers here by making a co-plea to commissioner Stern to spare Bell from suspension.
"We want him out there," Jackson said. "We want their full team out there to play. It's the only way to do it. You have to earn what you win."
It came across as a noble stance, especially given Jackson's well-chronicled status as a pioneer in the art of calculated quotes at the post-game dais to work the refs for the next game. If you're looking for the ulterior side of it, maybe Jackson wants to make sure the home crowd has a target. Maybe he just wants to make sure Kobe's at his edgiest. Bryant, after all, also says he's rooting against a suspension, insisting that Tuesday's escalation in his season-long tiff with Bell "actually excites me."
You can understand, though, why the Suns are nervous. They remain convinced that they've been dealt several scroogies in this series, most notably the midcourt tie-up in overtime of Game 4 from which replays suggest that (A) Steve Nash was fouled before a jump ball was forced; (B) Boris Diaw should have been granted the timeout he was screaming for just a few feet away from Nash and referee Bennett Salvatore; and (C) Luke Walton's foot was out of bounds when he tied Nash up. But they also know how vicious Bell's hit looks when you watch that replay.
Which is why Bell, in another unusual response to such situations, showed up unannounced to the interview room here to take a turn on the dais, too.
"It was a bad play on my part," Bell said. "I overreacted. ... It's been a pretty physical series, and at that point in time I had caught another elbow in my jaw. I lost my head and overreacted to it. I can't really blame anybody for what happened."
Said Nash: "Everyone on television [Charles Barkley, namely] asks for more physicality and all the critics say we aren't tough enough, and then push comes to shove and now you want to say [Bell's hit] is disrespectful to the game. ... It's a very fine line, and I think a lot of guys make plays they regret.
"In this series, we haven't had many calls go our way," Nash continued. "...Kwame Brown elbowing Raja or standing over Boris or Kobe pushing Boris into Smush Parker ... I don't understand what the real difference is in all these plays. But they're going to single out this play because it's against Kobe, and that's just a real shame."
If so, Phoenix will deeply regret not putting the Lakers away after pushing the lead all the way up to 84-62 late in the third. The Suns then eased up (or inexplicably tightened up again) at the start of the fourth and saw their cushion promptly sliced to 86-73. That forced them to keep Nash in the game for most of the final quarter, when he really could have used some extra rest, and it kept Bell and Bryant going at it.
If the margin between the teams stays in the 20s, maybe their jostling is postponed until Thursday ... instead of reigniting.
If the league rules how Nash fears, Phoenix will have lost big on the night it finally won big.
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AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
After landing hard on his hip, Heat guard Dwyane Wade left the game and was "questionable" to return. But tenacious D-Wade can, as the Japanese proverb (and shoe ad) says, "fall seven times, get up eight." A pain-killing shot helps too, and gave him the chance to come back and lead Miami to the Game 5 win over Chicago.
To me, complacency was a much bigger drag on the Lakers' game in Game 5 than the Kwame Brown situation.
But I guess we'll see for sure as the week unfolds ... and see whether press coverage of Tuesday's sexual assault allegations against Brown swells from here.
The Lakers, of course, have fairly recent experience dealing with allegations of this kind. Yet it was the steely Kobe Bryant at the center of that (much bigger) media frenzy and a Shaquille O'Neal-led team of veterans trying to block out the distraction.
Kobe, Brian Cook Devean George and Luke Walton are the only holdover Lakers from that ordeal, and this is a much younger team. These Lakers, though, seemed to be hanging in on the road just fine after a nightmare start ... until the final 90 seconds of the first half. That's when Boris Diaw earned seven trips to the free-throw line and made all seven in a prelude to the Suns' big third quarter.
The large media horde hovering outside the visitors' locker room pregame and postgame, waiting to get inside to ask uncomfortable questions, certainly foisted some tension upon the Lakers. But I'd say L.A.'s second-half fade was caused more by the first real glimpse of sustained offensive aggression from the Suns and the Lakers' emotional letdown -- knowing they had two more chances to close Phoenix out -- than anything related to Kwame.
Especially since Brown looked, to me, pretty loose under the circumstances, starting at center mere hours after it was announced that he's under investigation for alleged sexual assault.
Anyone who has followed Brown's career has heard the stories about how stress paralyzed him in Washington. Yet you couldn't tell here in Phoenix. At least I couldn't.
In warm-ups he engaged in some carefree one-on-one with Aaron McKie. Brown was indeed called for traveling on his very first touch, but he followed up his early turnover by rattling in three successive jump hooks as the Lakers calmly began to slice into an early 15-5 lead for the home team that -- get this -- was the Suns' first double-digit lead since Game 1.
Foul trouble is what took Brown out of the game more than anything, not coach Phil Jackson's fears about whether Kwame "can focus and play through this." Two silly fouls in a span of 38 seconds late in the first quarter -- which is to say two of Brown's usual fouls -- put him on the bench for the rest of the half. Then a similar pattern played out after halftime when Kwame got loose for two unchallenged buckets at the rim in the opening minute of the third quarter -- before picking up his fourth foul on a charge just 2:18 into the half.
In 24 minutes, Brown finished with 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting. Jackson wanted more activity on the boards, naturally, but he couldn't have been expecting a lot more. You'd have to guess he was expecting worse.
-- Marc Stein at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix
Vince Carter shook Danny Granger near the 3-point line with an ordinary pump fake, drove hard to his left and elevated over and around Jermaine O'Neal for a sweet lefty dunk.
The play with 28.9 seconds left upped New Jersey's lead to five points in a game they eventually won 92-86 for a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series. The way Granger bit on the pump fake and the way O'Neal turned into a flat-footed matador unable to lift his arms typified exactly what's wrong with the Indiana Pacers.
They're dead on their feet.
"Jermaine blocks a lot of shots, but he might have felt he just couldn't get to it. That's his decision," teammate Fred Jones said.
"Vince took off from a ways, and it surprised me he got all the way to the rim with his left hand," Indiana's Anthony Johnson said. "But at the same time, you can't take away from what he did athletically."
Carter surpassed 30 points for the third time in the series, finishing with 34 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a game the Nets should have won with a little more ease.
New Jersey never led by more than 11 and let the undermanned Pacers stick a little too close a little too long, but the Nets made the plays they needed at the end to move one win away from advancing to the second round.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle gave a few minutes to Sarunas Jasikevicius and David Harrison but basically went with a six-man rotation that left his remaining healthy players exhausted by the end. They shot 1-of-9 from 3-point range in the final quarter and committed three of their 11 turnovers.
One of the few remaining hopes the Pacers have left is the return of Peja Stojakovic from a swollen knee that has sidelined him for all three of Indiana's losses in this series, although team insiders were telling me beforehand that Stojakovic's availability for Game 6 is already in serious doubt.
Stojakovic has had swelling near the right side of his right kneecap for nearly a month now, and although X-rays and MRIs have shown no serious damage, the team isn't quite certain what's causing the swelling. Stojakovic played down the seriousness of the injury when I spoke to him before Game 5, and his agent said there is neither structural damage nor a need for surgery.
A cortisone shot might do the trick to get Stojakovic into uniform for Game 6, but when Stojakovic was a teenager playing professionally in Greece, he took a cortisone shot to speed his recovery and ended up breaking his leg all over again. And with Stojakovic about to enter an offseason in which he'll have tens of millions of dollars at stake on the free-agent market, prudence is dictating his present course of action.
"It's just irritation, and that takes rest," Stojakovic said. "They have good doctors here. It's nothing to be suspicious about."
-- Chris Sheridan in East Rutherford, N.J.
Kobe Bryant took a hard foul from Raja Bell when the game was out of reach in the Suns' 114-97 Game 5 win.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Manu Ginobili, here aiming to stop Kings guard Kevin Martin, shook off subpar games earlier in the series and scored 26 points in the Spurs' 109-98 Game 5 win.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The relentless circles through the lane weren't there. Nor the careening attacks in transition. Nor the multiple pivots to find the one passing angle that splits the defense for a teammate's easy basket.
Instead, there were passes directly to an opponent. Balls fumbled without pressure. Three-on-ones that looked as if the man in the middle, the reigning MVP, had the emergency brake on.
And yet, Steve Nash, with his back issues and stuttered gait, found his way to the rim just enough times and made just enough answer-back jumpers to lead the Suns to a 114-97 win over the Lakers, extending their best-of-seven first-round series to a sixth game in Los Angeles.
Yeah, Boris Diaw had the near triple-double and Shawn Marion finally broke out to add 21 points, but Nash provided the resilience, the refusal to let the Lakers ever get the psychological upper hand. Every time the Suns stuttered, he made a play. Maybe it was a no-frills jumper or a measured 3 or a crafty layup, but he delivered.
Whether it was facing elimination, a body refusing to let him play with his usual verve or some combination of both, Nash already appeared to be gritting his teeth at the morning shootaround.
When someone asked if he was 100 percent, he said, "I'm ready to go." Then he paused. "I'm never 100 percent, but I'm ready to go."
Nash finished with an atypical four assists, leaving the orchestration to Diaw, who finished one dime short of a triple-double (25 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists). Instead, Nash concentrated on parrying every momentum-threatening Lakers' shot.
When Kobe made one of two free throws off Raja Bell's flagrant foul and ejection and then sank a 3 on the subsequent possession to trim the Suns' lead to 10, Nash answered again with a mid-range J.
There's no mistaking where the heart of this series lies: Kobe vs. Nash, in a battle of MVP candidates to see whose will can lift his team four times. The sad truth is that if Nash wins the personal accolade (as has been reported) and the Lakers advance, history will treat Nash's achievement no better than the year Hakeem Olajuwon vanquished MVP David Robinson and the Spurs.
Considering what Nash showed Tuesday night to extend this series, that wouldn't be completely fair. There's not a lot Nash can do about his health. His determination? That remains unquestioned.
-- Ric Bucher, in Phoenix
It wasn't quite in Willis Reed territory, but what Dwyane Wade did Tuesday night was still amazing.
Floored when he was stuffed by Mike Sweetney on a dunk attempt, Wade suffered a painful hip pointer that kept him out for the start of the second half. With Miami's star guard on the sideline, Chicago quickly raced out to a five-point lead, and Heat fans started having painful flashbacks to last season's Detroit series.
Then Wade came back in with 5:50 left in the third quarter and quickly reversed the tide. He pumped in 15 of his 28 points after the injury, and more bizarrely he did it mostly with his outside shooting. Wade floated in a long jumper to regain the lead late in the third and then added three jumpers in the fourth. He even threw in a 3-pointer, which for Wade are about as common as ivory-billed woodpeckers. It was as though he changed bodies with Ray Allen while he was in the locker room getting treatment.
In the end, the Heat may not have needed Wade's effort, because their defense was so stupendous. Miami held Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon to 6-of-29 shooting, and in a 10-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters the Bulls mustered only six points (it's not a coincidence, by the way, that Chicago's slump coincided with Andres Nocioni going to the pine with four fouls). If the Heat made their free throws, they would have won by 25.
Speaking of which, here's the second-biggest question from Tuesday: If you're Scott Skiles, how do you not use the Hack-a-Shaq?
With 3:24 left, the Bulls were coming out of a timeout with Miami having the ball and a nine-point lead, and The Big 2-of-12 manning the middle. Skiles didn't even have to change his lineup -- Malik Allen and Ben Gordon still had four fouls to give.
But he passed on hacking, James Posey hit a 3-pointer, and by the next stoppage in play the Bulls were down by 14 and the game was essentially over.
I relegated the Hack-a-Shaq question to second-biggest, of course, because the largest one remains Wade. That he played so well with the injury is a good sign, but that doesn't guarantee he'll be 100 percent by Thursday -- or even 50 percent.
If he isn't, those Detroit flashbacks might start coming back again.
-- John Hollinger
This is probably the least of the Lakers' concerns, after Tuesday's Kwame Brown allegations and given that they still need one victory to get to a Hallway Series, but a second-round matchup with the Clippers would come at a cost.
Word has filtered to Dimedom from the league office that neither Lakers nor Clippers players (or staffers) will be eligible to collect per diem during a Hallway Series.
Members of a team's traveling party receive a daily stipend of $102 on the road. But league rules stipulate that the team must leave its home city to get the extra cash.
"We haven't even uttered the word 'Clippers,'" Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before Tuesday's defeat cut L.A.'s lead to 3-2.
The Zenmeister then quickly tacked on something that sounded like a Homer Simpson "d'oh!"
-- Marc Stein