Mostly Cloudy Currently: Phoenix, AZ
Temp: 82° F
  • Game info: 10:30 pm EDT Tue May 2, 2006
  • TV: TNT

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Lakers lead 3-1.

The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t needed Kobe Bryant to show why he’s a scoring champion. They have seen why he’s an NBA champion.

Following one of the most clutch performances of his career, Bryant hopes to lift the Lakers into the second round of the playoffs as they try to close out Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in Game 5.

Though he’s won three championships and took the scoring title this season, just winning this series may be among the more impressive accomplishments of Bryant’s career. The same might be said of coach Phil Jackson, who has won nine titles and had never led a team to fewer than 50 wins until this season.

Bryant’s 17-footer at the buzzer in overtime gave the Lakers a 99-98 victory on Sunday, lifting his team to a 3-1 lead over a Phoenix squad against which it had lost eight of nine games going into this series.

“It was the most fun shot I have ever hit, just because it’s us, enjoying this as a unit,” said Bryant, who has averaged 23.0 points in this series— about 12 less than his regular season average.

“I have played a lot of playoff basketball, and I never had a game quite like this. We matured about 10 to 15 years today. We did a lot of growing up in this game.”

His game-winner came after Luke Walton had forced a jump ball by tying up Nash, who reportedly is going to win his second straight NBA MVP award. However, that mistake and another one late in regulation by Nash doomed the Suns.

He had the ball stolen away by Smush Parker late in regulation, leading to Bryant’s high-arching layup on the break with 0.7 seconds left to tie the game at 90 and force overtime.

“I have been involved in a lot of wild ones,” said Jackson, who is 22-0 as a coach after leading a series 2-1. “That one was right up there.”

Though some of the Suns felt he was fouled on both critical plays, Nash declined to make that case after the game, explaining he slipped on the first and the Suns wanted a timeout before the second.

“It is amazing. We did everything we could to win the game,” Nash said. “We made some crucial mistakes, but some of it was bad luck. In hindsight, there wasn’t much we could do.”

The Suns’ hopes of a second straight trip to the Western Conference finals are in serious jeopardy because only once in the last nine years—Detroit against Orlando in 2003—has a team come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.

“It’s still a seven-game series,” said Suns forward Shawn Marion, who fouled out with 20 points and 12 rebounds Sunday. “We’re going home. We’re going to our home court. We got to go there and win that game.”

Even if Los Angeles doesn’t win Tuesday, it would have another chance to oust Phoenix on Thursday at Staples Center, where the Lakers have won the last two games.

Los Angeles is trying to become the first seventh-seeded team to win a playoff series since the first round was stretched to a best-of-seven format in 2003. Only four No. 7 seeds—the 1998 New York Knicks, 1991 and 1989 Golden State Warriors and 1987 Seattle SuperSonics, and two No. 8 seeds—the 1999 Knicks and 1994 Denver Nuggets—managed first-round upsets in a best-of-five series since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984.

A big reason the Lakers are in this position is Bryant spreading the ball around, and Los Angeles following his lead with excellent passing. Bryant is averaging nearly eight fewer shots from the field and about two more assists than he did during the regular season.

Bryant had 24 points Sunday as he battled foul trouble for much of the game.

“He is amazing,” Walton said. “The NBA is so competitive and coming down the stretch knowing you have Kobe on your team, you know that you are never really out of a ballgame.”

Lamar Odom, meanwhile, continued his outstanding series with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He’s averaged 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the four games while shooting nearly 51 percent from the field.

Odom has clearly won his matchup with Marion, who was being hyped as a possible MVP candidate earlier this season but has been fairly quiet through four games. He’s averaged 18.0 points and 8.8 rebounds, well below his season averages, and has only one double-double in the series after finishing tied for second in the NBA with 60 this season.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lakers - 7th seed. Suns - 2nd seed.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Lakers - F Walton, F Odom, C Kwame Brown, G Parker, G Bryant. Suns - F James Jones, F Marion, C Boris Diaw, G Nash, G Raja Bell.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 23.0 ppg and 6.3 apg; Odom, 11.5 rpg. Suns - Marion, 21.8 ppg and 11.8 rpg; Nash, 10.5 apg.

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