Lakers guard Kobe Bryant beats Suns forward Grant Hill inside for a layup… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
No matter what happens in an already bumpy and unpredictable season, there's one player who can take the Lakers to a higher level.
It's no surprise. It's Kobe Bryant.
He had 36 points, nine rebounds and six assists Friday in the Lakers' 111-99 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center.
He had 18 points in the third quarter, pushing the Lakers to a 20-point lead. He also rescued them in the fourth quarter after the lead was chopped to five.
Regardless of their record (18-12) and fifth-place position in the Western Conference, the Lakers were still considered legitimate contenders by at least one longtime NBA observer.
"As long as they have No.24, they will be thought of that way," Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said. "Their record doesn't really matter. They still have him, [Andrew] Bynum and [Pau] Gasol.
"At the end of the day, are you telling me anybody would want to play them in the playoffs in the first round? No, I don't think so. I don't think anyone is begging to play them in the playoffs in the first round."
Bryant was everywhere in the third quarter, making eight of 12 shots as the Lakers extended a 57-48 halftime lead. He had a hang-in-the-air layup that drew plenty of excitement from the crowd and also fed Bynum with a no-look pass for a dunk.
Bryant even stripped Suns center Marcin Gortat on one end and nailed a three-pointer at the other to give the Lakers an 83-63 lead with 3 minutes 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
If nothing else, Bryant proved he had a long memory.
He remembers the old days with the Suns (12-19), specifically their first-round playoff meetings in 2006 and 2007, neither of which went the Lakers' way.
"We had a really tough playoff series against them two years in a row and they beat us bad," Bryant said. "We had a 3-1 series lead and they came back and got us [in 2006]. They had some choice words for us afterwards. I'll never forget those."
The Lakers would lose most of their 20-point lead, the Suns moving to within 95-90 on Shannon Brown's dunk off a rebound with 4:29 to play.
Bryant's 12-foot turnaround put the Lakers back up by nine with 3:38 to play. Then he drove through traffic and scored on a left-handed shot in the lane.
"Kobe's ability to score is something that can't be coached," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "He's a guy that when times get tough for us, he's supposed to carry us. At the end of the day, when it gets thick, you have a guy like Kobe where you can say, 'Hey, give me a bucket.'"
Bynum had 17 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers. Reserve forward Matt Barnes had 17 points on six-for-seven shooting. Gasol, though, had only 10 points, missing nine of 13 shots. He had 13 rebounds.
Gortat punctured the Lakers down low, scoring 21 points and taking 16 rebounds. Shannon Brown, who left the Lakers to join the Suns as a free agent before this season, had 15 points in 20 minutes.
The Lakers have won three in a row and are an impressive 13-2 at home. They play Phoenix on Sunday on the road, which hasn't been so kind to them this season.