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After a Season in Wilderness, L.A. Springs Into Action

Bill Plaschke

April 29, 2006|Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

Jeffrey Osborne was here, singing a national anthem that drew sweat.

Derek Fisher and Rick Fox were here, human throwback jerseys who drew standing ovations.

History was here, this home team having lost only eight of the 48 playoff games it has played at Staples Center.

The fans were here, emerging into spring for the first time in two years, howling under a purple-and-gold light.

After a 22-month absence, a Laker playoff game was here Friday night.

Not coincidentally, so were the Lakers.

"Playoff basketball," said Lamar Odom.

"Team basketball," said Kobe Bryant.

Muscling, meshing, magnificent basketball.

Still underdogs, still doubted, still not believing any of it, the Lakers threw a full-body eclipse on the Phoenix Suns in a 99-92 victory in Game 3 of a first-round series in the NBA playoffs.

The Lakers not only have taken a two-games-to-one series lead and stolen home-court advantage, they also have momentum as strong as Kwame Brown's elbow.

The Suns felt that, among other things, Friday night, in getting pushed and prodded into a bunch of off-kilter gunners with neither rhyme nor reasoning, nor an effective Steve Nash.

"We pushed back," said Brown.

Who knew they could? Who figured they would?

Paging through a regular-season novel composed of Bryant and a page of footnotes, who would have guessed the Lakers could eventually win a playoff game with Smush Parker scoring the most points (18), Luke Walton taking the most shots (19) and Odom grabbing more rebounds (17) than any two Suns combined?

Yeah, that's right, Luke Walton took the most shots.

"Never happened before," Walton said, grinning. "Not even in practice."

But as they showed Friday in a game in which they never led by more than eight points, but never really seemed threatened, these are the new Lakers.

"It started during the last couple of games of the regular season," Walton said. "We know this is how we have to play to win."

Nobody is buying it more, or selling it better, than Bryant.

He composes, he directs, he makes his teammates shine.

And, yes, it still says here that he will eventually have to take more than 18 shots and score more than 17 points for these Lakers to go deeper into the playoffs.

But for now, those "MVP" chants make sense.

And Phil Jackson's strategy has worked as brilliantly as the world championship ring that Fox thrust at the screaming crowd when the scoreboard cameras caught him sitting in the stands.

"They're ready to play," Jackson said. "They're ready to stand up for each other and play."

In the final minutes, with the Lakers holding a two-point lead, what happened showed exactly how ready they are.

Odom missed a jumper, but Walton grabbed the rebound and laid it back in for a four-point lead.

The Suns' Leandro Barbosa missed a three-point attempt, then Parker grabbed a perfect pass from Walton to score on a reverse layup for a six-point lead that was enough.

Bryant's two free throws clinched it, and the only thing stranger than seeing this unlikely team walk off the floor with a series lead was seeing their owner in the locker room.

Jerry Buss, who was big enough to admit a mistake and rehired Jackson, walked around thanking people who should have been thanking him.

This win clearly moved him. It moved many of them.

"This is not about my shots or Kobe's shots," Odom said. "It's about the name across the chest, which says, 'The Lakers.' "

It was that chest that they thrust out early, barging into the game with an attitude, refusing to get dragged down by the tugging Suns, knocking them backward instead.

It started early in the first quarter, Walton dragging down Tim Thomas under the basket, leading to an angry scrum.

The foul was ruled flagrant. Given recent ejections of James Posey and Ron Artest for similar incidents, Walton was lucky he wasn't ejected.

"No free layups in the playoffs," Walton said.

Then in the third quarter, Brown threw an elbow that knocked Boris Diaw to the floor, a technical foul. Brown stood over him in a taunting fashion. Brown's teammates yelled at him to cut it out.

"They had been pushing and shoving me, and I wanted it to stop," Brown said.

In the end, the fans were cheering the Lakers' strength as much as their savvy.

We've heard "Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be."

But, "Kwa-me, Kwa-me, Kwa-me?"

Brown grinned.

"I still thought they were saying, 'Ko-be.' "

Before the game, this spring's theme flashed on the giant sheets that hung from the scoreboard.

"We Believe. Do You?"

If only in regard to a series victory over Phoenix, maybe one ought to start seriously thinking about saying yes.

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