Then Leandro Barbosa, the “Brazilian Blur”, brought the NBA’s highest-scoring offense to life, and Bryant went from awesome to awful.
The result was a second-half rally that gave the Suns a 95-87 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in their first-round Western Conference playoff opener.
“They did everything in the book to give this game away,” Lakers guard Smush Parker said, “and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Barbosa showed why he is a leading candidate for the NBA’s sixth man award. The super-speedy guard scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half, including 15 consecutive Phoenix points in one stretch, to match his career playoff scoring high.
“I was just trying to be aggressive like I’ve been the whole season,” Barbosa said. “They were trying to slow down the game, and it’s not the way that we like to play.”
Amare Stoudemire, back in the postseason after missing last year’s while recovering from two knee surgeries, added 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Bryant scored 39, but only 11 in the second half. The NBA’s scoring champ was 1-for-10 shooting in the fourth quarter, when Phoenix pulled away.
“Kobe ran out of gas in the fourth quarter,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Their defense did a great job against our offense, and we couldn’t find a way to get on track.”
That’s right, a Suns’ team known for its prolific offense relied on defense. Phoenix held Los Angeles to 10 fourth-quarter points.
“Our defense was the key to the game,” Steve Nash said. “Obviously there’s not much we can do on the runs Kobe went on, but if you look at the entire game, our defense was solid.”
Nash had 20 points and 10 assists and Shawn Marion 16 points and 16 rebounds for a Phoenix team that struggled mightily on offense until Barbosa provide the spark, highlighted by a 31-footer at the third-quarter buzzer that cut the Lakers’ lead to 77-74 entering the fourth.
“It was a really big shot,” Nash said, “a turning point there.”
Lamar Odom, who had to leave the game briefly to get five stitches in a cut over his left eye, had 17 points and 16 rebounds for Los Angeles.
Game 2 of the rematch of last year’s first round series is Tuesday night in Phoenix. The Suns won the opener last year, too, but lost the next three, then regrouped to win the last three and advance.
Bryant, 11-of-17 shooting in the first half and 4-of-16 in the second, refuted any suggestion that his late-game troubles were due to fatigue.
“No, I was fine. I was fine,” he said. “We didn’t execute like we did in that first half, so my touches became a lot harder.”
Nash said he didn’t know if Bryant wore down, “but certainly it’s not easy to go kind of one-on-one that long.”
Energy was no problem for Barbosa.
His personal scoring surge erased a 77-71 deficit. Barbosa’s driving layup on an ultra-fast break put Phoenix ahead 79-77 with 10:29. It was the Suns’ first lead since it was 13-11 midway through the first quarter.
“He is just so much faster than anybody else it’s unbelievable,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said.
The Phoenix run reached 16-4 after Boris Diaw made one of two free throws to give the Suns an 87-81 lead 6:27 from the finish. With Bryant misfiring, Phoenix stretched it to 91-83 on Stoudemire’s dunk after a pass from Barbosa, who had tumbled to the floor, with 3:32 left.
Bryant’s lone field goal in the fourth quarter was a layup.
“You lost a ball game. Nothing slipped away when you lose a game like that,” Jackson said. “What we do know is that we can play with this ballclub, and we have the energy to contain them for a full game. They played a 48-minute game and we played a 36-minute game.”
A 14-2 run brought the Suns temporarily back from a 12-point second-quarter deficit. Phoenix tied it at 37 on Nash’s 3-pointer with 3:09 left in the half.
Then Bryant took over, outscoring the Suns 11-2 the rest of the half, the last nine on 3-pointers. His final 3 came from 27 feet with two defenders in his face and one second on the clock.
In all, Bryant scored the Lakers’ final 15 of the half and Los Angeles led 48-39 at the break.
Bryant’s only 3-pointer of the second half gave the Lakers a 57-45 lead with 9:47 left in the third quarter.
Nash, always his team’s severest critic, liked its defense and the late grit but didn’t like the way the Suns started.
“I think sometimes our team forgets where we are,” he said. “We are a little bit complacent in that we feel like it’s just going to happen for us.
The Suns’ Raja Bell and Diaw were a combined 3-for-13 for seven points. Bell was 0-for-5 on 3s. … The Lakers’ record for most points in a playoff game is 61 by Elgin Baylor in 1962. … Phoenix has four straight playoff victories over the Lakers. … Jackson lost a playoff opener for the second year in a row after winning his first 14.