Reporting from Phoenix
The Lakers needed a road victory and found one. They wanted to show they were still the dominant team in the Western Conference and accomplished it.
It was only a game near the middle of March and yet it was a declarative statement after so many question marks the past couple of weeks.
Wallowing in the waters of what would have been a fifth consecutive road loss, the Lakers pulled out of the muck by beating the Phoenix Suns, 102-96, Friday at US Airways Center.
All five starters scored in double figures — a rarity these days — and Kobe Bryant became more distributor than scorer, in part because of the game plan and in part because he got rapped on the index finger of his right hand…again.
Bryant certainly wasn't ecstatic after coming close to a triple-double, but he wasn't seething like he was last week in Charlotte or dejected like he was in a meager victory over Toronto that he called, simply, "garbage."
"We did good," he said Friday. "Much better."
Bryant had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists but also seven turnovers, a product of looking often for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol down low against the smaller Suns.
Bynum was again efficient on offense, scoring 18 points on eight-for-12 shooting, and Gasol had 15 points on seven-for-11 shooting.
The victory was "super important for us," Bynum said.
"We need to start building because Dallas is chasing us and Denver is chasing us. We need to start putting together a couple little streaks here. There's  games left in the season, there's no reason we can't try to get at least 13 of them and try to get to 60 [victories]."
The Lakers (48-18) lead Dallas by three games in the Western Conference standings.
Their ball movement was vastly improved, one fourth-quarter sample coming when Bryant passed to Gasol, who then swung the ball to a wide-open Ron Artest in the left corner for a three-pointer.
On another play, Bryant found Derek Fisher in the left corner for a three-pointer. Earlier, after a hook shot by Bynum, Bryant turned and gave a thumbs-up to the Lakers' bench.
Bryant couldn't give a similar reaction after his dunk attempt was blocked by Louis Amundson in the third quarter. Bryant immediately grabbed his right hand, aggravating an injury dating back to Dec. 11.
"I can't hold the ball, so that's a little frustrating," Bryant said afterward. The Lakers aren't expected to practice Saturday and don't play again until Monday at Golden State.
If this wasn't a physical game, it was certainly active.
Suns Coach Alvin Gentry was tossed out with 5:06 to play because he wanted a flagrant foul after Gasol hit Amundson in the head while trying to block the shot of the Suns' reserve center. Suns guard Jason Richardson restrained Gentry from going after referee Mike Callahan.
"Pau gave a hard foul, which is what we like to see from him," Bryant said. "We're not giving up layups and giving up easy opportunities. It's just playing hard. It's not playing dirty, it's just not giving up anything easy."
On another play, Amundson took out Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen and athletic performance director Chip Schaefer while diving for loose ball.
Jackson chided reporters before the game when asked if the Lakers would soon awake from their slumber.
"I can't believe you guys," he said before allowing that, well, maybe he could believe them.
"We're concerned as a unit," he acknowledged. "We have to start finding ways to win games that are close and provide that kind of energy a game needs during the whole 48 minutes."
Give them credit Friday, not for the whole 48 minutes, but enough to get a quality road victory.