LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant sent a pair of autographed sneakers upstairs to a Staples Center luxury suite, where Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping watched the NBA’s leading scorer do his thing.
Bryant’s timing couldn’t have been better, because he scored 18 of his 36 points in the third quarter — the only one that Xi saw in its entirety. The Lakers went on to beat Phoenix 111-99 on Friday night, handing the Suns their fourth straight loss in a span of five days.
Bryant also had nine rebounds and six assists. He scored at least 40 in each of his previous two games against Phoenix, including a 48-point effort in the Lakers’ 99-83 win on Jan. 10 at Staples Center — his highest-scoring game in the NBA without making a 3-pointer.
“Obviously, Kobe went off,” teammate Andrew Bynum said. “He had 38 points, and the rest of us were just kind of filling in the gaps.”
It was only the fourth time in 30 games this season that the Lakers reached the 100-point mark. Bynum had 17 points and 14 rebounds, Pau Gasol had 13 rebounds and 10 points, and Matt Barnes added 17 points off the bench along with seven boards in 25 minutes.
“I was just trying to be aggressive, capitalizing on mistakes and on the other team’s ball-watching with Kobe, Pau and Drew,” Barnes said. “Knowing they’re going to lock in on those guys, usually they’re going to get double- or triple-teamed.”
Coach Mike Brown’s much-maligned bench outscored the Lakers’ starters 24-21 over the first 20 minutes, as Troy Murphy and Steve Blake hit 3-pointers 23 seconds apart to cap an 11-0 run that turned a one-point deficit into a 45-35 lead with 5:56 left in the second quarter.
“Our bench played very well,” Bryant said. “They came in and executed. We’re a different team when we’re knocking down the 3-ball, because teams can’t pack it in on me and they can’t sink on Andrew and Pau. When we’re knocking down 3-point shots, that changes things drastically.”
Phoenix center Marcin Gortat, the only player to start all 31 games for the Suns, led them with 21 points and 16 rebounds on his 28th birthday. Steve Nash had 17 assists along with 11 points — and an uncharacteristic seven turnovers.
“They did a good job, but I also didn’t capitalize on our opportunities,” the two-time NBA MVP said. “I had some careless turnovers, and we just dug ourselves into a hole.”
The Suns had 17 turnovers overall, which the Lakers converted into 21 points. The strangest one came early in the first quarter when Nash had the ball at the top of the key, tried to whip a pass to Jared Dudley in the left corner for a possible 3-point shot, and the ball ricocheted off teammate Grant Hill’s head and out of bounds as Hill darted down the lane.
“Our problem started in the first half,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “You can’t have 17 turnovers. They’re 30th in the league at forcing turnovers, so we brought our problems on ourselves. They were unforced turnovers, really. We threw the ball away and we didn’t protect the ball.”
The Lakers took an 83-63 lead with an 18-2 run capped by Bryant’s 3-pointer with 3:20 left in the third. Phoenix guard Shannon Brown, who won two championship rings with the Lakers, cut the margin to 87-73 with back-to-back 3s in the final 35 seconds of the quarter — one of them a buzzer-beater.
“It’s the same thing that happened here last time,” Gentry said. “I had to take Grant out of the game, and (Bryant) seems to explode every time I do that. I think he had 16 points when we took Grant out, and he had 32 when he got back in. Somebody else is going to have to step up and slow him down, at least.”
Brown, the last player off Phoenix’s bench, played 20 minutes and had 15 points after sitting out six of the previous seven games due to a coach’s decision. He came in averaging 9.0 points and 21.1 minutes in 23 games since signing with Phoenix as a free agent on Dec. 11.
“He did a great job. I’m really proud of him, because the one thing he has been is professional about this,” Gentry said. “It’s not easy when you’re sitting over there and not playing. He feels like he can help our team. It was a good opportunity, so I was going to try to get him in the game somewhere. I just think he deserved to be in there.”
Phoenix rookie Markieff Morris hit a 3-pointer to slice the Lakers’ lead to 93-83 with 6:47 remaining, less than a minute before Bryant reported back in. Brown cut it to 95-90 on a spectacular slam dunk, grabbing Morris’ missed jumper above the rim and slamming it down in one motion with 4:30 to play.
But Derek Fisher responded with a pull-up jumper, and Bryant followed with a pair of short jumpers to give the Lakers a 101-90 lead with 2:42 left. The Suns got no closer than eight the rest of the way.
Three Lakers scored in double digits in the first half, including Barnes, whose 11 points helped them take a 57-48 lead at the break. Gortat had 14 points and nine rebounds in the half.
NOTES: Xi capped a four-day visit to the United States. He entered the arena on a red carpet and sat above the official scorer’s table and the players’ benches. Magic Johnson and David Beckham also stopped by the suite to visit him, and mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented the Chinese dignitary with a Lakers jersey with his name on the back. … The Lakers had 20 turnovers. … The Suns are 8-10 when Nash reaches double digits in assists, and 3-7 when he doesn’t. They are 0-3 in the games he’s missed. … The Suns are 0-16 when trailing after three quarters. … Fisher, sent home from Thursday’s practice because of a sinus infection, extended his consecutive games streak to 525 — the longest among active players. It was his 403rd straight start, and he finished with 12 points in 25 minutes after missing his first three shots. … The teams meet again Tuesday night in Phoenix when the Suns begin a three-game homestand leading up to the All-Star break.