- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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"I was thinking it was going to be Kobe, Kobe, Kobe," said Suns forward Shawn Marion. "But we played the Lakers today."
Reason being: Phil Jackson and the NBA's only 35-points-a-game guy decided there were other priorities on Sunday bigger than putting on the show we all wanted. Coach and player apparently reasoned -- and, yes, they insist such decisions are made collectively in this re-marriage -- that Kobe's green and thin supporting cast would be more likely to make this a series if they were very involved in Game 1.
So L.A. was willing to sacrifice this game, as well as the worldwide assumption that Kobe would be dazzling, if that meant making Kwame Brown and Luke Walton feel more like folks who believe they should be starting in the big afternoon playoff game on ABC.
The result? The Lakers were worlds less enjoyable to watch, but they indeed got everyone involved and came close to winning anyway. The visitors also came away moderately encouraged by this 107-102 defeat, knowing that they were in it to the finish even though Bryant, when finally implored by the Zenmeister to go Kobe on the Suns, submitted an unusually limp crunch-time display.
Turns out there's a reason for the limpness, too. The game's best active closer admitted afterward that what he was asked to do in Game 1 is tougher than what all of us want him to do.
What's tougher than telling himself to go for 50 points (or more) from the opening tip?
Morphing from three quarters of pass-first No. 8 into Mr. Eighty-One at crunch time.
"It's harder," Bryant said.
"But I look forward to the challenge Wednesday."
As you surely know by now, Bryant didn't score less than 37 points in the teams' four regular-season meetings and has a standing invitation from the Suns to shoot for 60 (or more) if he wishes. Yet Jackson is convinced that the Lakers have no shot to be competitive playing that way and must force themselves to A) attack the Suns' tiny front line to capitalize on the absence of Amare Stoudemire and interior defensive ace Kurt Thomas and B) keep the ball moving so L.A.'s Smush Parker-types won't be ice cold and confidence-shy if they have to take an important shot late.
The problem, of course, is that committing to pound the ball inside repeatedly means Kwame becomes an offensive focal point for the Lakers instead of Kobe. That's something no one really wants to see, probably not even Kwame.
But before you blast Jackson for daring to hatch such a game plan, it's probably safer to say that the Lakers merely are looking to increase their series-long options as opposed to locking themselves into Kwame-centric game plans. It likewise seems unjust to blast Bryant, who certainly tried to execute Jackson's (and his critics') vision by putting everyone else first. Whether or not he liked it.
This much is clear: Phoenix was surprised. The Suns seemed as stunned as the rest of us to look up at the scoreboard at the start of the final period and learn that Walton had already scored 17 of his 19 points with Bryant stuck on 12.
That's even though Suns coach Mike D'Antoni acknowledged reading accounts of Jackson vowing in recent days to play this way.
"I didn't believe them," he said, "but I guess I do now. They were very intent on getting the other guys going."
D'Antoni went on to describe Bryant as "pretty much a set-up guy" in this one and a "little bit more passive than usual."
Passive is one word for it. You certainly wouldn't have bet on the Lakers getting a combined 54 points and 26 boards from Lamar Odom, Walton and Brown any more than you would have bet on Kobe turning 21 shots into a mere 22 points.
Now, though, Walton and Brown know they're capable on the big stage, or at least capable against these smallish Suns. The trio's production would have crept into the 60s if Odom and Brown hadn't conspired to miss a flurry of early "bunnies" at the rim, to use Jackson's word.
Jackson branded the whole exercise as an opportunity "to feel out a little how we could play against this team." Translation: The goal in Game 1, win or lose, was getting Bryant and his, uh, unheralded teammates to believe that they don't need a one-on-five miracle to be competitive.
Which you'd have to say they accomplished. Bryant missed his first five shots in the fourth when he tried to turn it on, but the shaky hosts still weren't safe until Steve Nash swished a corner triple with 67 seconds to play. The Suns needed every one of their whopping 35 free-throw attempts (32 made), after averaging just 18 free throws a game during the regular season to set an NBA record low, to offset their inability to run on the Lakers like normal.
"We're going to see a lot of variations from them throughout the series," Nash said, feeling fortunate to escape with a 1-0 series lead and already bracing for a more predictable Kobe response.
"I expect him to be more aggressive, obviously, after losing this game."
It's an expectation Bryant isn't exactly trying to discourage, which has to encourage anyone who was hoping for a different Kobe here.
"All I need is one jumper to go down," Bryant reminded, "and I'm hot."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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