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|The Lakers have beaten the Suns (twice), Spurs and Pistons en route to an 18-10 record.|
LOS ANGELES --- At this rate it won't be long before the Lakers will have a rivalry with the Phoenix Suns.
We can't say that yet, at least not if we adhere to the regulations once set forth by Kobe Bryant. After the Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings in that draining 2002 Western Conference finals, I asked Bryant if the Kings were the Lakers' biggest rivals. He said I couldn't use that word. "They've got to beat us in the playoffs first," Bryant said. "C'mon, you know the rules."
So maybe the Lakers' 122-115 victory over the Suns at Staples Center on Christmas Day didn't change the terminology, and maybe Suns coach Mike D'Antoni could afford to say, "This doesn't bother me," seeing how it came in the regular season.
But after the Suns bounced the Lakers from the playoffs the past two seasons, the Lakers finally look ready to take a seven-game series from them for the first time since Steve Nash arrived in Phoenix.
That's one revelation from this game. The other is that Phil Jackson looks incredibly goofy in a red bow tie. Hopefully it will be banished to the bottom of a dresser drawer.
--Kobe Bryant talks about his L.A. Lakers
But what's likely to make another appearance come playoff time is Andrew Bynum. If he's going to put up numbers like this -- a career-high 28 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots -- he gives the Lakers the perfect weapon to go at the Suns' size weakness. "He's a handful," Suns forward Shawn Marion said. "They've got a legitimate big man."
Phil Jackson and Bryant did their best to provide the disclaimers. They remember how the Lakers stumbled to a 42-40 record after being 13 games above .500 at one point last season, and they haven't forgotten Bynum's fade after a promising start last year.
"We just want to maintain what we are about," Jackson said. "Every game, come out and play that kind of game, show consistency. At the end of the year, if [Bynum] is the MVP, then we'll say what a great year he's had."
With Bynum in the frontcourt along with Lamar Odom (who pounds the Suns on the boards and had 14 more rebounds Tuesday), the Lakers forced the Suns to go with a big lineup of Amare Stoudemire, Brian Skinner, Boris Diaw and Marion for a long stretch in the fourth quarter. That kept one of Phoenix's top 3-point shooters (and primary Kobe defender), Raja Bell, on the bench.
The other thing that's changed from past Lakers-Suns games is Phoenix's domination at the point guard position. To paraphrase Rose Royce, Smush don't live here anymore. Sure, Nash still gets the check in the matchup box, but with the return of Derek Fisher and the improvement of Jordan Farmar, the difference isn't as pronounced as it used to be. Last season, Nash outscored Parker by an average of 22 to nine. In two games so far this season -- both won by the Lakers -- Fisher has the difference down to a respectable 22 to 17.
Bynum also exposed Stoudemire's slow defensive rotations and reluctance to box out. And Bynum and Fisher negate the arrival of Grant Hill -- especially after new Lakers acquisition Trevor Ariza helped limit Hill to only two second-half points. (How about Ariza, making the most of his first Lakers start and 33 minutes to get 14 points, seven rebounds and the highlight of the game: throwing down a dunk over a planted Hill the way Kobe did to Nash a couple of years ago).
Ariza's athleticism, Bynum's height, Fisher's vet presence ... what are we leaving out? Oh yeah, Kobe. He was the superior superstar in the end, outperforming Nash and taking over the fourth quarter, when he scored 12 of his 38 points.
You still won't get him to gush about this team. At one point he nearly apologized for his basic, "Belichicky" answers that sounded a lot like the hooded coach. But Kobelichick did allow this: "We have a solid foundation. We really do. We have length, we have speed, we have quickness, we have shot-blocking. We have guys that can steal the ball. We have playmakers. It's looking very solid."
It's looking like a team that can compete with the Suns, whom they trail by only one game in the Pacific Division and shouldn't fear if they meet in the postseason. D'Antoni didn't sound panicky. "I think we're pretty good," he said. "Last time I checked we were one or two games off the lead in the West." Notice that, unlike the testy exchange at the end of their last meeting, he didn't talk about busting the Lakers in the playoffs.J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.