PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; tied 1-1.
With the series tied at 1-1, the scene shifts to Los Angeles for Game 3 with the seventh-seeded Lakers looking to move a step closer to pulling the upset.
The Arizona Republic reported Wednesday that Nash would win the MVP award after leading the Suns to a 54-win regular season despite several new faces in the Phoenix lineup, as well as the absence of Amare Stoudamire for all but three games.
Nash scored 29 points for the Suns in Game 2 on Tuesday, but it was the leadership of Bryant that helped the Lakers leave Phoenix with a 99-93 victory and home-court advantage in the series.
“Kobe was leading us perfect tonight,” the Lakers’ Kwame Brown said of Bryant, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “Everybody expects him to come out and score 40 because it’s the playoffs, but he did what a leader and general should do.”
Bryant was the NBA’s scoring champion at 35.4 points per game this season, but he didn’t reach 30 in either of the first two contests. Bryant took only 21 and 24 shots in each of the first two games after averaging 27.2 field-goal attempts in the regular season.
That’s by design, as the Lakers’ game plan has been to get everyone more involved in the offense. Bryant also had five assists as Los Angeles played Phoenix tough in a 107-102 loss in Game 1 on Sunday. He added 22 points and six boards in that contest.
“During the regular season, when everyone was trying to learn the offense, Phil and I both knew I was going to have to shoulder the scoring load,” Bryant said. “Now in the playoffs, everyone has a rhythm for the game and we can start attacking as a union.
“It’s not me trying to go out there and score 40 or 50 points.”
Lamar Odom went 9-for-12 from the field and scored 21 points Tuesday while coming up with several key defensive plays, and the Lakers also got contributions from Brown (12 points), Sasha Vujacic (11 points) and Smush Parker and Luke Walton (eight apiece).
“Lamar is a dangerous player,” Bryant said. “There are not too many like him in the league. As a matter of fact, he’s probably the only one in the league that size who can handle the ball, post you up and shoot the 3.”
The Lakers’ approach defensively seems to be slowing down the fast-paced Suns, although big expectations also seem to be weighing on Phoenix’s wide-open attack. Neither San Antonio nor Dallas is in Phoenix’s part of the playoff bracket, and the Suns are expected by many to cruise into the conference finals.
“For whatever reason, it looks like it’s almost a weight on our shoulders or whatever,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We just need to get out there and run. We’ve got to bust through some barriers there for whatever reason.”
Game 2 was the first time in nine contests that the Suns lost to Los Angeles with Nash in the lineup. They trailed by as many as 17 points and went 7 1/2 minutes without a point.
“We’ve really struggled to be ourselves regardless of how they play us,” Nash said. “We’ve got a little bit of, I don’t know if it’s playoff anxiety or what. We really just need to get back to being ourselves.”
Phoenix has been held under 100 points only twice in the last 15 games, both times by the Lakers.
Game 4 is Sunday in Los Angeles.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Suns - 2nd seed. Lakers - 7th seed
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Suns - Nash, 24.5 ppg and 10.0 apg; Thomas, 12.0 rpg. Lakers - Bryant, 25.5 ppg and 5.0 apg; Odom, 10.5 rpg.