LOS ANGELES (AP)—Surprisingly, the Utah Jazz weren’t overjoyed about facing the Los Angeles Lakers without Kobe Bryant in uniform. Their egos say they want to beat teams when they’re at full strength.
And besides, this time they had to guard everybody closely instead of just one player who monopolizes the ball on a regular basis.
Andrei Kirilenko scored 23 points, Keith McLeod scored four of his 15 points in the final 78 seconds and the Jazz took full advantage of Bryant’s suspension to grind out a difficult 98-94 victory on Sunday night.
“The Lakers did a pretty good job tonight, even without Kobe,” Kirilenko said. “There are lots of examples of teams playing even better without their leader, because they try to pick it up and lots of other guys are shining.
“When he’s on the floor, all the attention is on him and we double- and triple-team him. Without him, everybody can score, so you have to spread your attention. I wouldn’t say it’s harder to play them without Kobe, but it’s not easy, either. It’s just different.”
Bryant was suspended for two games without pay by the NBA after committing a flagrant foul against Mike Miller during last Wednesday’s overtime loss to Memphis. Bryant elbowed Miller in the throat as payback for an earlier foul by Miller, which left Bryant with a gash over his left eye that required three stitches.
The Lakers’ star, who exacerbated the situation with some less than contrite post-game remarks, will forfeit $289,943 in salary. They were 6-10 last year without Bryant, who missed 14 games with a sprained right ankle, one with a bruised right shin, and another for personal reasons.
“I never like for anybody to miss a game,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. “I think that if you’re going to play, you play the best. I’ve never been one of those people who hopes a guy doesn’t play, because I’d rather compete against him. And if you’re not good enough, then you don’t belong here, anyway.”
Bryant won’t accompany the Lakers to Salt Lake City for the second half of the home-and-home set with the Jazz, but will return to the lineup on Friday night to face Philadelphia and Allen Iverson—who has a slight lead over Bryant in the league scoring race.
“I wouldn’t ask him to go on the trip,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before the game. “We want him to stay behind, work out and get an opportunity to condition himself. It makes no sense for him to go along on the trip and stay in the hotel while we play.”
Brian Cook connected on his first eight shots and finished with 19 points for the Lakers, who lost their fourth straight game after winning nine of their previous 11. The third-year forward finished 8-for-10 while playing a season-high 40 minutes.
“It was kind of surprising because he didn’t even come to practice. He just stayed away and let us do our thing,” Cook said. “We spent a lot of time on executing our offense, and we did a pretty good job of that tonight. We just didn’t make some key plays down at the end.”
Both teams shot an identical 29-for-58 through three quarters, with Utah lead 76-73. Devin Brown’s 3-pointer with 5:16 left in the second quarter capped a 12-4 spurt that gave the Jazz a 42-32 lead, their biggest of the game, and Utah never trailed after that.
The Lakers tied the score twice in the fourth quarter—the second time on a layup by Lamar Odom, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds. But McLeod regained the lead for Utah with a layup, Luke Walton turned the ball over to Jarron Collins at the other end, and McLeod’s two free throws clinched it with 22 seconds to go.
“We felt like we let one slip away tonight, but it just shows that we all can play at this level,” Cook said. “I mean, we love Kobe when he’s out there, but we all can play. We don’t buy into that stuff about how we don’t help Kobe out. We’re all competitors and we’re all professionals. That’s why we’re here.”
Utah’s victory, coupled with Minnesota’s loss at Miami, put the Jazz within one-half game of the Timberwolves for the Northwest Division lead despite their 15-16 record.
The only time Bryant has played an entire 82-game season was 2002-03, when he averaged a career-best 30.0 points. … Bryant has missed no fewer than 15 shots in 13 games this season. He leads Los Angeles with a 32.7 scoring average—but his 43.7 field goal percentage is the lowest of any of the five Lakers who have taken at least 70 shots. … Lakers C Chris Mihm, a University of Texas alum, has seven people staying at his home who came out for the Longhorns’ national championship showdown with USC in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl. … Only one player has scored more than 24 points for Utah in its last 21 games. Matt Harpring had 30 against Atlanta in a 95-83 win on Dec. 7.