They’re not just watching now.
All five starters scored in double figures for the second time in three playoff games Friday night, and the Lakers beat the Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns 99-92 for a 2-1 lead in their first-round, best-of-seven playoff series.
Game 4 will be played Sunday at Staples Center.
“When you’ve got five guys on the court who are a threat, it’s hard to defend,” said Lamar Odom, who had 15 points and 17 rebounds. “Look at Detroit. It probably confuses the team we’re playing against, when you win the game and Kobe scores 15 or 16 points.”
Bryant actually scored 17, lowering his average in the series to 22.7. He scored an NBA-leading 35.4 points per game during the season—the league’s highest average in 19 years.
While Bryant isn’t scoring as much, he said he’s enjoying it more. And he’s playing an integral part.
“I just think people should give Kobe more credit,” said Lakers center Kwame Brown, who has emerged as a major force in the past six weeks. “He gives you what you need. He’s showing great leadership.”
Odom believes what’s happening now is nothing new for Bryant, although the circumstances have changed.
“Kobe has played that position (of floor leader),” Odom said. “You look at the Lakers’ success early in their championships, that was his role.”
The Lakers won NBA titles from 2000-02, but Bryant was teaming with a young, vibrant Shaquille O’Neal in the middle and several other experienced teammates who had played together for years.
That’s not the case now. Instead of O’Neal and veterans like Robert Horry, Horace Grant, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Ron Harper and Brian Shaw around, the 27-year-old Bryant is working with younger players like Brown, Odom, Luke Walton, Smush Parker, Brian Cook and Sasha Vujacic.
“Most of these teams in the playoffs have been together for a while,” Brown said. “We were put together at the beginning of the year. This is a little quick for us to jell.”
Phil Jackson, whose nine championships as a head coach are tied for the most in NBA history with Red Auerbach, returned to the Lakers this season after a year off. The 60-year-old Jackson has said repeatedly the goal was simply making the playoffs.
The Lakers did so by winning 11 of their last 14 games for a 45-37 record, good for seventh place in the Western Conference. Now, they’re got the upper hand on the second-seeded Suns.
“It’s amazing, it’s crazy,” Walton said of the different style the Lakers have adopted. “This is the way the coach wanted us to play from the get-go. It’s a process. I think we’re a lot better team than we’ve been all season.”
Bryant said he’s elated by the way things are going.
“Now that we understand (the offense), it’s easier to do it,” he said. “This is the way we want to be playing. It’s more fun playing this way—it feels great.”
Brian Grant, who played for the Lakers for two seasons before joining the Suns last summer, gave credit to Jackson and Bryant.
“You have Phil Jackson, you have the cooperation of their superstar,” Grant said. “In the regular season, Kobe had to do what he had to do to secure the playoffs. Now that he’s in the playoffs, he realizes that style won’t win the series.”
Phoenix star Steve Nash said wasn’t surprised the Lakers have been successful with their different approach.
“I think it just shows where they could have been if they played like this all year,” he said. “It’s a team sport. They’re all playing better now because they have more confidence and they’re getting more opportunities.”
Regarding the Suns, Nash said: “Right now, I think we lack a little confidence. Guys have to step up. I think we’ve been on our heels a little bit. We’ve got to get ourselves going, we’ve got to be competitors. You can live with yourself if you compete.”
Suns F Tim Thomas expects to play Sunday despite the sprained left knee he sustained late in Game 3. “I’m sore, but I’m all right,” he said after practice Saturday. … Brown said he regretted flipping Phoenix’s Boris Diaw to the floor before standing over him in Friday night’s game. “It’s the playoffs,” Brown said. “I felt like they were holding and grabbing me. You can clearly see it on the tape. You look at the playoffs in the ’80s, that was light. That wouldn’t have even been a foul call.” Said Nash of Brown’s action: “It wasn’t necessarily worthy of a sportsmanship award.”