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Lakers 102, Suns 96: One Moment

4:26 remaining in the third quarter. Pau Gasol blocks Steve Nash's three-point attempt in space, Derek Fisher gets the loose ball and the Lakers streak down the hardwood with numbers, primed to build on a 71-58 lead.

One assumes, given how Phoenix has only three defenders to occupy four scoring options, somebody in purple and gold will eventually take it to the rim and, if not score, earn a trip to the free-throw line. I know I did.

Wrong assumption.

Instead, the ball is eventually shuttled by Kobe Bryant -- from the paint with Andrew Bynum trailing in the lane, no less -- to Ron Artest, who launches a three-pointer early in the clock. The premature and wholly unnecessary dagger attempt doesn't even hit the rim. The ball lands in Lou Amundson's hands, goes straight to Nash, and we're eventually treated to Grant Hill spinning past Fisher for a layup and Phil Jackson calling a very unhappy timeout.

It was reminiscent of an earlier ill-advised three-point try in the quarter by Artest.

After stripping Amar'e Stoudemire, Artest proceeds to ruin the achievement by launching a challenged downtown shot in transition with virtually no Lakers around for a rebound. (In fairness to Artest, there were only 20 seconds remaining on the clock.) Phoenix bolts the other way after grabbing the rebound, and Fisher is quickly forced to take a foul to prevent a Jason Richardson layup.

It was also very reminiscent of how the Lakers won this game: Heavy on ugly hustle. Low on consistently good execution.

Lest anybody misunderstand me, there were certainly positives on display. All five starters hit double figures. Bynum was extremely effective with 18 points on only 12 shots and Kobe fell two assists shy of turning his 21 points and 10 rebounds into a triple-double. Shannon Brown scored nine off the bench and Sasha Vujacic made a few defensive plays and a triple while getting extended run in place of Jordan Farmar, who played only three minutes after re-injuring his hand.

Most important, the Lakers limited the Suns to 15 second-quarter points and only 23 in the final frame, a quarter where Phoenix managed just six points between the 9:34 and 4:22 mark. Like I said, the hustle was often there.

There were also, however, several instances of bone-headed decision-making and mental lapses making the hustle even more necessary, sequences allowing Phoenix to hang around. The Lakers once again remained baffled during several possessions by a zone defense. They shot 25 times from beyond the arc, far too many on a night where Bynum absolutely had his way down low. Too many possessions were spent getting away from what worked. Pau Gasol spent the first half mired in what has emerged a very difficult funk to shake for sustained periods. The Lakers shot 59.1 percent from the line.

Long of the short, the consistent execution everyone pines to see emerge as the playoffs loom remains elusive for the time being.

But still, I'm all about the W, especially against a quality opponent playing for meaningful stakes. The Suns were very rested and 24-8 at home, making them a challenge to beat even at one's best. The Lakers certainly have a lot of work to do and progress to make before confidence in their repeat chances can be felt as strongly as it was back in November.

But you still have to view every win within its context, and along those lines, the Lakers worked hard, overcame avoidable mistakes and got the job done. That may not be enough down the road over increasingly difficult seven-game series, but that's certainly enough for this particular Friday in Phoenix.

Onward and (hopefully) upward.