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Game Trax: Stats and more

By GREG BEACHAM

AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Lakers’ swagger is more of a stagger after consecutive losses in the Western Conference finals.

After

leaving town last week to chants of “We want Boston,” Kobe Bryant and

Pau Gasol realize they won’t even get the chance to defend their NBA

title unless Los Angeles starts defending the Phoenix Suns.

Although

Gasol says Game 5 on Thursday night is “a must-win for us,” the

champions’ California cool shows few signs of cracking, beyond Bryant’s

grumbling about missed defensive assignments.

After

surviving a near-identical jam in last season’s conference finals

against Denver, the Lakers came away with a confidence they can rise to

any occasion — even a best-two-of-three series against a surging,

shot-making opponent with rising confidence of its own.

“There’s

absolutely no doubt that we love this,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said

Wednesday, not sounding much like a coach planning to fill out

retirement papers next month. “This is what champions are made of. If

you have the best teams in the West going up against each other, it

should come down to a challenge like this. … This is what basketball

at this level is. Like I told them, ‘If you can’t meet this challenge,

then why go to the finals?'”

The

Lakers have been in this situation three previous times over the past

two playoffs: a series tied at 2, with Game 5 at home. Los Angeles won

each time, beating Houston and the Nuggets last season before trouncing

Oklahoma City last month in the first round. Overall, they’ve won Game

5 seven straight times at home.

Yet

the Suns hold every smidgen of momentum heading back to Staples Center

after winning the last two games with a gimmicky zone defense,

impressive bench play and another phenomenal exhibition of offense. Los

Angeles’ 58 percent shooting in its first two victories masked its full

series of ineffective defense so far: Los Angeles has yielded 113

points per game, and Phoenix has shaken off a brief spell of outside

shooting problems.

At least the Lakers are back home, where they haven’t lost in seven playoff games this spring.

“The

momentum we have, the confidence we have now, is definitely going to

help us going to L.A.,” said Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, who shook

off two mediocre games at Staples Center with big efforts in Phoenix.

“We definitely can win there. It’s just a matter of us implementing our

will.”

Will

was a popular topic in El Segundo as well, with Bryant declaring that

most of the Lakers’ problems are mental lapses on execution and

assignments. After nearly posting a triple-double in Game 4, Bryant

lamented Los Angeles’ inability to stick to its assignments when the

Suns repeatedly ran their pick-and-roll, drive-and-dish offense.

“My

message is offensively, we’re going to score enough points,” Bryant

said. “Defensively, we’ve got to do a much better job. That’s my

message. We’ve got to grind, do a better job staying in front of them.”

The

Lakers uniformly downplayed the importance of Phoenix’s zone defense, a

2-3 scheme that puts defenders on both sides of Los Angeles’ post

players. The Lakers’ shooting decreased sharply in Phoenix, but Jackson

snorted at the idea he’s being outmaneuvered, noting his club still

scored 107.5 points per game in Arizona.

“They

challenge you in a lot of ways that we have to adjust to,” Gasol said.

“It’s mostly stuff we know about. It’s about being alert all the time.”

Suns

coach Alvin Gentry will have to miss his son’s elementary school

graduation on Thursday night after his club avoided the sweep that

seemed highly possible after its first two losses in Los Angeles.

Gentry

persuaded his players to stick with his simple defensive scheme in the

past two games. The Suns allowed Bryant to work his usual offensive

magic, but forced the Lakers’ low-post scorers to work extra hard for

shots — or to give up the ball to the Lakers’ rather ordinary

perimeter shooters, including Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Shannon

Brown.

“We

want to stop everyone, but sometimes you just can’t stop Kobe,” Suns

guard Steve Nash said of Bryant, who’s averaging 28.9 points per game

in the playoffs. “So we can’t get discouraged. He’s playing as well as

maybe he’s ever played right now. He may continue to do that. We’ve

proven we can win if he plays great, but we’ve got to be really solid.

We’ve got to be tough. We’ve got to win all the little battles, because

they do have some matchups and talent that we don’t have.”

Jackson

echoed Nash’s concerns about the little things, citing a few offensive

rebounds the Lakers failed to secure in the first quarter of Game 4.

Those mistakes eventually snowballed into team-wide problems with

execution, even after the Lakers took care of almost every detail in

the first two games while extending their playoff winning streak to

eight games.

“We

understood that it was going to be hard,” Gasol said. “The first two

results we obtained gave us a good feeling, but we knew the Suns were

going to bounce back, and they have.”

Bryant

and center Andrew Bynum didn’t appear to practice with the Lakers on

Wednesday, although Jackson didn’t say for sure. Bynum is playing on an

injured right knee that will require surgery, while Bryant simply takes

advantage of every chance to rest his accumulated injuries.

Updated May 26, 2010