West teams face long odds against Lakers

LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant's(notes) pass hung in the air for a moment, and then it was gone, disappearing into Andrew Bynum's(notes) giant hands just long enough for him to viciously flush the ball through the rim. The Phoenix Suns' center, Channing Frye(notes), had raked Bynum with a foul, but no matter. On this night, Frye, like all of the Suns, could only stare hopelessly up at the Los Angeles Lakers.

The rest of the West knows the feeling. These days, the Lakers are playing above everyone's heads. The Suns brought the conference's second-best record into Staples Center Sunday night, and were dismissed with a thorough 108-88 beating. It was the Lakers' ninth consecutive victory, and afterward one question bore asking:

Did the Lakers ever look this dominant last season?

"We've played the other teams," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said, "and I think they're by far the best team."

By "other" Gentry meant the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, the East's power triumvirate. Nearly a quarter of the schedule is gone, and the West has so far produced only the Denver Nuggets as legitimate challengers to the NBA's defending champions. The Portland Trail Blazers just lost Greg Oden(notes) for the season. The San Antonio Spurs are hibernating again, only this winter no one knows if they'll awake. And as well as the Dallas Mavericks have played, they just lost consecutive games to the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks.

As for any comparisons between the Suns and Lakers? Gentry said it best himself: "What we're trying to do and what they're trying to do are completely different things."

The Lakers remain their own measuring stick, and they've already noticed growth since the end of last season. Simple math says two 7-footers are greater than one.

The Lakers lost Bynum midway through last season, and he wasn't much help after returning for their playoff run. Pau Gasol(notes) then missed the first 11 games of this season. Only now are the Lakers building upon the potential they showed before Bynum went down.

"We can thank Memphis for that," Gentry said.

The Grizzlies' decision to trade Gasol to the Lakers nearly two years ago still burns rival coaches and executives. Now the Lakers have become as formidable as everyone in the West feared. That's why the Suns gambled on Shaquille O'Neal(notes), and it's why small-market teams like the Spurs and Utah Jazz now feel compelled to pay hefty luxury-tax bills to try to close the talent gap.

More than ever, size matters against the Lakers. Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom(notes) are all long and athletic, and they can each pass. They also clean up each other's mistakes. When Gasol stumbled and missed a layup early, Bynum rose over the Suns for the rebound and put-back.

"I wouldn't give away our secrets," Odom said, "but we like to get the ball inside."

That's why Oden's knee injury could cripple any hopes Portland had of reaching the NBA Finals. Some scouts think the Blazers could settle into a better flow offensively without Oden, but this is also true: With their young center, the Blazers were one of the few teams with enough size to counter the Lakers. They'll still be dangerous once Travis Outlaw(notes) returns, but losing a 7-footer who can defend and rebound against the Lakers' big men is tough to overcome.

The Suns tried to compensate for their own mismatches with double-teams. The Lakers' shooters then buried them from the outside.

"When you feel like you're doing everything you can to try and compete and win, and your opponent just seems to be one step ahead of you and finding ways to do things easy, that can be frustrating," Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) said. "We can do that to anybody if we're focused and disciplined."

Focus is sometimes still a problem for the Lakers, who admit they've benefitted from a cozy schedule that allows them to play 17 of their first 21 games at home. The Suns, in contrast, have already played 14 road games and Sunday's visit – like their previous meeting with the Lakers – came at the end of a back-to-back.

"I want to see us do this on the road in tougher situations against teams that are ready to play," Gasol said.

Toughness, however, doesn't seem to be much of an issue with these Lakers. The Lakers were good last season, but also beatable. Now? Not so much. Having Bynum healthy helps, but so has the addition of Ron Artest(notes). When Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) tried to make a simple outlet pass, Artest muscled up to him before finally flustering him into losing the ball. The turnover threw a charge into the Lakers, who pulled away for good.

"I don't know where their weakness is," Gentry said. "No one can be any more physical than they can. No one is more athletic than they are."

This is what the rest of the West always feared. The Lakers are healthy, hungry, growing stronger by the week. Once again, everyone else is looking up.

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