The Suns won the opener of the best-of-seven series, but they’ve been here before.
A year ago, Phoenix won Game 1 against the Lakers, then lost the next three and needed seven games to put away Kobe & Co.
“It’s a huge lesson,” said forward Amare Stoudemire, who watched that series in street clothes. “Last season the Lakers came back and played well and pushed it to a Game 7. We can’t allow that this year. We’ve got to go ahead and take care of business so we can rest for the second round.”
Kobe Bryant, however, noted that this Phoenix team has one muscular, 6-foot-10 difference from last season.
“You’ve got that gorilla in the middle,” Bryant said. “Stoudemire, he makes it tough on our guys down there because he’s a great shot blocker. You’ve got to pound the ball inside but it’s not as easy to do it this year as it was last year.”
Stoudemire, out all but three games of the 2005-06 season, watched last year’s playoffs while recovering from two knee surgeries. Now that he’s back in the middle, the Suns have an inside presence that was sorely lacking a year ago.
He had 23 points and 12 rebounds in Sunday’s victory but said he and his teammates could have done better.
“I missed a couple of easy jumpers I normally make,” Stoudemire said. “A lot of guys missed some jumpers they normally make. There were a few easy baskets we might have missed in the first half. But the thing about it is we stayed aggressive, we didn’t get down. We stayed focused and got a win.”
The teams drew far different conclusions from Sunday’s game.
The Suns felt good about winning despite a sub-par performance, the Lakers felt they showed they can stay with Phoenix.
“In many ways, we realize we were lucky to win,” Suns guard Steve Nash said. “We didn’t play well at all offensively. We didn’t make shots. We didn’t come out with a lot of energy, but we were mentally strong and defensively gave ourselves a chance to win.”
“I didn’t think we played our `A’ game, and against these guys you need to,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I was really happy with the way we fought, the way we defended. You just don’t want to give Kobe a chance going down the stretch that he can win a game by himself.”
For two quarters Sunday, Bryant looked as if he would do just that.
He scored 28 points in the first half, capped by a series of spectacular shots to give Los Angeles a 48-39 halftime lead. Harassed by Bell and a host of helpers, Bryant was just 4-for-16 in the second half, 1-for-10 in the fourth quarter, when the Suns—led by Leandro Barbosa—pulled away.
It’s a familiar situation for Bryant, who has long contended that he needs more help from his teammates when the defenses clamp down on him.
“Yeah, it makes it frustrating,” he said before Monday’s practice. “It’s not only that when I miss we struggle, it’s just that I’ve got to shoot through three guys. If everybody else is not hitting shots, it’s going to be a very, very tough night.”
Despite their fourth-quarter woes, the Lakers were conceding nothing.
“I don’t think anybody feels particularly bad about the Game 1 loss,” Bryant said. “I think we’ve learned some good things. Now we’re trying to carry them over to Game 2 and see if we can’t duplicate the success that we had last year.”
The Suns know they could have joined Dallas and San Antonio as surprise Game 1 losers if not for Barbosa, who matched his career high with 26 points, 19 in the first half. The “Brazilian Blur” won the NBA’s sixth man award on Monday.
“He’s a phenomenal player. I enjoy watching him play,” Bryant said. “Obviously, we have our hands full, but it’s something I’m sure we’ll make some adjustments to.”
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson gave Barbosa his due respect, but said he can be defended much better than he was on Sunday.
“I’m not going to say he’s Kobe Bryant yet,” Jackson said. “There’s a way you have to do it, and I think we have to focus on that.”