LOS ANGELES -- It's always something with the Lakers, and Monday night was a smorgasbord of controversy, dominance, skill, theatrics -- everything but their specialty. All that was missing was the drama.
Kobe Bryant hadn't practiced in a week after having fluid drained from his swollen right knee. Phil Jackson's future became the topic du jour in the pregame news conference, as did his comments and ensuing statement attempting to clarify his comments about Arizona's immigration law.
Bryant's wife, Vanessa, wore a shirt during the game that read, "Do I look legal?" Whether it was a shot at the legislative body from Arizona or her husband's coach from North Dakota, nobody can know for sure. Finally, while Jessica Alba posed for pictures with fans on the court after the final buzzer, "actor" David Arquette got bum-rushed and tackled behind the first row of seats by a very large man I couldn't identify, except to say it wasn't Sylvester Stallone.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, the Lakers toyed with the Suns to the tune of 128-107 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, proving that 1) yes, a week off did them a world of good, and 2) they can beat the Suns any time they feel like it.
They felt like it Monday night, and Bryant certainly did, too. Wearing a bright yellow protective sleeve on his gimpy knee, Bryant torched the Suns for 40 points -- 21 in a merciless third quarter -- and said afterward it was "important to show them this is gonna be a fight."
What, like Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks? Round 1 of this best-of-7 series was by any measure a knockout.
Recap: Lakers 128, Suns 107
Series matchup: Lakers 1, Suns 0
"Just being aggressive," said Bryant, who was not wearing a protest shirt but a black windbreaker with enough gold-plated zippers on the sleeves to store all four of his championship rings. "I got shots, and took 'em. Got lanes to the basket, and took 'em."
With a week to rest his weary body, Bryant's scoring gifts were too much for the Suns. And at least in Game 1, the glare of the defending champs' home court was too bright for the Suns, too.
"Now we understand what type of beast we're dealing with," Amar'e Stoudemire said.
Speaking of which, Bryant spent the first two quarters wrestling with 37-year-old Grant Hill, an activity he described as "enjoyable," but one that resulted in him accumulating only 14 points -- a manageable number for Phoenix, which trailed 62-55 at halftime. Bryant opened the third with a fadeaway jumper, a finger roll and a 3-pointer before Hill picked up his third and fourth fouls and went to the bench. By the time the quarter was over, Bryant had 35 and the Lakers were running away from the most notorious running team in the NBA.
It looked personal. It's always personal for Bryant, who is fueled by many things. In this case, it's his desire to get ring No. 5 and also avenge two particularly galling and transformative playoff losses to the Suns in 2006 and '07.
The Game 7 loss in '06 still haunts him because of the widespread perception that he tanked the game -- that his three shots and one point after halftime meant that he chose sending a message to the Lakers' front office over winning the game. That loss, coupled with the following season's ouster by the Suns, led to Bryant's much publicized offseason rant about wanting out of L.A. Instead, the Lakers got Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol, and here they go again.
So if you think this is personal for Bryant -- well, you've been paying attention, despite his playful attempts at denial.
"Oh, it's never personal with me," Bryant said, making no effort to disguise his sarcasm.
|When Kobe Bryant is healthy and he has that fire in his eyes, all that drama around the Lakers seems to disappear. (Getty Images)|
On Monday, attention turned once again to the touchy topic of Jackson's future after a radio interview aired in which he said his chances of retiring after the season were "pretty good." Jackson danced around the issue before the game, and also declined to give an exact date when Bryant had his knee drained.
He should drain it more often, if you ask me.
"I just lost weight," Bryant said when asked to describe the impact of the procedure. "Just feel a couple pounds lighter. ... I've done a lot of work during the season, working a lot on my shooting and working on different things. Now I feel like I have two legs to play with. I have a better balance on my shot, and the shots aren't going short anymore. They're going in."
Thirteen of the 23 he launched from the field Monday night found their intended target. The Suns can try to take solace in the fact that Bryant did most of his work on the perimeter, but with Lamar Odom producing 19 points and 19 rebounds, Bryant didn't need to go messing around near the basket. That territory was staked out quite well as the Lakers' obvious size advantage showed up from the opening tip.
"They're probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on," said Steve Nash, who had a quiet 13 points and 13 assists, engineering only four fastbreak points since the Lakers shot 58 percent from the field and outrebounded Phoenix 42-34.
"That's what we had, four fastbreak points?" a puzzled Stoudemire said. "Yeah, see, that's the problem. Same problem we had [in the first round] when we lost those games against Portland. We've got to get the ball out fast, and first we've got to get stops. If we don't get stops, it's hard for us to get into our offense."
There was nothing puzzling about what the Lakers did Monday night. This is what they do when Bryant has a purpose and a rhythm and little resistance in front of him. It is what they do when Odom is dialed in, and when Shannon Brown is soaring in for a poster-dunk try that came up a couple centimeters short of humiliation for Jason Richardson.
Whether the Lakers will be as determined to put this opponent out of its misery as they were against the Jazz is only a small part of what makes them so fascinating. At least, they're the most fascinating thing that's been going on in the NBA playoffs this spring, a traveling study in psychoanalysis that will have to do as a distraction from the latest LeBron James free-agency news. James, the supposed heir to Kobe's throne as the greatest player in the game, forgot a couple of ingredients along the way. For example, only one king wears the crown at a time.
Asked how he has been able to go on this kind of scoring binge -- six consecutive 30-point playoff games -- despite the physical ailments, Bryant smiled his dastardly smile and said, "Old age." And his eyebrows danced up and down after he said it.
The old man is still standing, swollen knee and all. He's here for all challengers to take their shots -- all challengers, that is, who aren't home thinking about next year.
Before Jessica Alba was posing for pictures and David Arquette was getting tackled, a chorus of, "We want Boston!" broke out in Staples Center. Someone asked Bryant for his reaction to this and was met with a cold, ruthless stare from the old man with all the rings and the crown that will have to be surgically removed from his bald head over the next few weeks.
"I have zero reaction to that," Bryant said.
And that time, he meant it.