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Lakers have unobstructed view of the Pacific

Their 99-95 victory over the Suns gives them a 9 1/2-game lead in the division. Ron Artest's late three-point shot clinches the deal for L.A.

January 06, 2011

Reporting from Phoenix — No matter what might be troubling the Lakers, no matter who's mad at whom and who's starring in what reality show, there's still one thing they can always fall back upon — the Pacific Division.

The Lakers haven't been the same since an 8-0 start, but they moved 9 1/2 games ahead of second-place Phoenix in the Pacific after a 99-95 victory over the Suns on Wednesday, the smallest feather in an even smaller hat, though the Lakers will take whatever they can these days.

Division titles aren't what the Lakers desire, and there are still plenty of big-picture problems to consider, but they used a bit of Andrew Bynum, a surprise three-pointer from Ron Artest and a sprinkle of new reality TV star Lamar Odom to win at US Airways Center.

It wasn't easy for the Lakers, no surprise, as Bynum continued his upward trend since returning from off-season knee surgery, scoring 14 points, and Kobe Bryant enjoyed an accurate effort, scoring 24 points on nine-for-17 shooting.

But Pau Gasol had a silent night against the small-ball Suns, scoring six points on three-for-10 shooting, leaving the door open for the slumping Artest, of all people, to hit the shot of the game.

He briefly hesitated after Bryant found him alone in the left corner but then hoisted a successful shot that put the Lakers ahead, 97-91, with 1:30 to play.

"It's nice to see it go in for him," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Artest had been used to sitting out plenty of fourth quarters, but he was put back into the game with 2:04 left. He justified it.

"This is the first time I've been in in the fourth quarter in a long time, in meaningful games like last season," Artest said. "We've got more games, so there isn't nothing to feel too happy about."

Bryant went over and rubbed Artest's head after the three-pointer, capping another busy day for the Lakers (25-11), who had one player step into the spotlight as another exited it.

On the day that Odom announced plans for a TV show with wife Khloe Kardashian, the Lakers didn't mention the recent Artest-Jackson conflict in any of their team meetings before the game.

Jackson even joked about it, telling a reporter to "refresh my memory" on the bizarre events of the last two days.

Artest had 11 points against the Suns as the Lakers improved to 7-1 against division teams, including 4-0 on the road.

Bynum was stopped only by foul trouble and free-throw shooting (two of seven) while Odom symbolized the Lakers' fourth-quarter stand, staying in the game after coming down hard on his left arm and then scoring on Matt Barnes' airball after alertly grabbing the ball and laying it up.

As the Lakers moved out to a 12-point first-quarter lead, Bryant was unusually pumped to see Odom feed Bynum for a dunk, springing off the bench and high-fiving teammates as they walked off for a timeout.

The Lakers' lead was short-lived, the 60% they shot in the first quarter dissipating amid a sloppy second quarter that created a 50-49 Suns halftime edge. It also didn't help the Lakers that Jared Dudley scored 19 points on seven-for-eight shooting in the first half. Dudley had two in the second half.

When the Suns (14-19) beat the Lakers by five in November, they came close to an NBA record by making 22 of 40 three-pointers. They went a different direction Wednesday, including a "power" starting lineup with two centers, Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat.

It didn't quite work, the Suns losing for the sixth time in seven games.

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