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Kobe's 43 beats Suns, puts Lakers in playoffs

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- 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 on Sunday.

"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 3½ 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 nationally
televised 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 W's 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 1½ 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.

Game notes
The Suns won the season series 3-1. ... Lakers C Chris Mihm
remained out because of a severely sprained right ankle, with
Jackson saying Sunday wasn't the time or the game to bring him
back. ... Kareem Abdul-Jabbar celebrated his 59th birthday at the
game. ... Paris Hilton attended the game wearing Bryant's No. 8
jersey with her name on the back. She got booed and responded by
saying, "Nice." ... Jack Nicholson dressed in his Easter Sunday
best, wearing a jacket and purple tie instead of his usual rumpled
look.