By Skip Bayless
Page 2

This series was over. It appeared that was what the league office wanted. What the refs wanted. What Kobe Bryant had willed.

No Raja Bell for Phoenix. No hope for the Suns.

Clear the Staples stage for L.A. vs. L.A., Lakers vs. Clippers, Jack Nicholson vs. Billy Crystal. Go ahead, Kobe, dismiss the Suns in Thursday night's close-out Game 6 the way you dissed "that kid" Raja in a Wednesday interview.

Kobe sniffed and said, "I don't even know that kid."

Steve Nash
Getty Images
It's not just about the playoffs. After Bell's one-game suspension, it's personal now.

No? The "kid" who's two years older than you? The "kid" who had made you work harder for your points than any defender all season, including Ron Artest? The "kid" who, ironically, had made you start involving your teammates, which finally allowed you to go Steve Nash and boast that the Lakers are finally a team.

Oh, the royal-purple irony.

We should have known from Wednesday's rather childish "who-the-heck-is-he" reaction that the new Kobe was about to turn back into the old one. You know, the one Raja Bell called an "arrogant, pompous individual." The one who thinks he can outscore Phoenix by himself.

The one who fell ego-first into the Suns' trap on Thursday night at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant scored a career playoff high 50 points. The Lakers lost in overtime 126-118.

Justice prevailed.

I must admit, it has been a long time since I rooted harder for a team than I rooted for Nash's.

"We did this for Raja," Nash told TNT when it was over, knowing full well that the suspended Bell was watching on TV. Nash ended the interview with, "All right, Rah Rah."

Guess who'll be waiting Saturday in Phoenix for Kobe? Guess who'll be rested and revved for revenge? That kid.

Can't wait.

Remember the scene in "Caddyshack" in which Danny Noonan is running things until caddymaster Lou gets back, so Noonan is locked safely behind the screened-in counter of Lou's office? Noonan is mouthing off to tough-guy D'Annunzio because he's protected by the screen.

But Lou unexpectedly returns and shoos Noonan out of the office … where D'Annunzio is waiting with fists clenched.

That's going to be Raja in Saturday's Game 7. That's Kobe Noonan.

And Kobe thought he wouldn't have to deal with "that kid" until next season.

"A monumental upset," Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Game 6, "….we had it all done except crossing the t."

Could that have been "T" as in all the technical fouls that weren't called on the Lakers in the first five games? If you hadn't known better, you would have suspected that the league office had suggested to refs that they, uh, maximize the chances of the series everyone wants to see -- Kobe's team vs. L.A.'s basketball stepchildren, the Clippers.

So, for five games, the refs allowed Kobe's team to get away with almost as much thuggery as Tony Soprano's crew. The new Kobe got away with throwing cheap-shot elbows and constantly taunting Bell.

Yes, the refs watch "SportsCenter" and they're quite aware that the tougher new Kobe -- Phil's Kobe -- has had a sensational season and that the Suns can be softer than old Kobe, who had no more street cred than Barney Fife.

But should that even subliminally sway the refs? Should they have looked the other way while the Lakers flat-out stole last Sunday's Game 4 to take what appeared to be an insurmountable 3-1 lead?

No, Nash isn't Kobe. He wouldn't have a prayer against Kobe in a game of one-on-one. And he'll never be the tabloid or TV draw that Kobe is.

But he's about to be the NBA MVP for a second straight season, and he deserved a little more respect from the refs than, say, Smush Parker or Kwame Brown or Luke Walton got in Game 4. They're Kobe's teammates.

Kwame got away with knocking down Nash's teammate, Boris Diaw, and standing over Diaw with, as Nash said, his crotch in Diaw's face. No fine, no suspension, no nuthin'.

Steve Nash
Getty Images
Let's give the MVP the respect he deserves.

Then, near the end of regulation, as the Suns struggled to inbound the ball near midcourt, Nash had to dash for the sideline and try to outfight Parker for a desperate pass. MVPs almost always get the foul call there. Nash didn't.

Parker stole it. And Kobe sent the game into overtime by making the most difficult 3-footer you'll ever see -- a running baseline floater.

But the Suns had just enough time to create one last shot off an inbounds lob from inside midcourt. James Jones fooled the Lakers defense and broke free down the lane for what looked like would be a game-winning dunk. But Walton reached out and yanked the back of Jones' jersey, breaking his momentum and throwing off the timing of his jump. Play aborted.


That foul had to be called. That same jersey-grabbing, game-deciding foul was called on the Nets' Nenad Krstic, at New Jersey, and it cost the Nets Game 1 against Indiana.

Please don't tell me none of the three refs saw Walton's grab.

And please, please, don't tell me that I actually heard analyst after national analyst criticize Nash for "dribbling into trouble" with a one-point lead with under 10 seconds left in overtime.

Obviously, Nash dribbled past half court and immediately covered up because he had absolutely no intention of passing to a teammate. Obviously, he wanted to be fouled! He wanted to shoot the free throws that could give his team a three-point lead! He led the NBA in free-throw percentage! He's the two-time MVP!

And guess what? The Lakers had no choice but to foul Nash. Walton and Lamar Odom were trying to body-foul Nash -- and it was up to referee Bennett Salvatore to anticipate that.

But Salvatore let 'em play, let them mug Nash. When Nash realized he wasn't getting the routine foul call, he tried to yell for timeout. So did Diaw. But Salvatore wasn't listening.

Salvatore allowed Walton enough time to reach in and begin wrestling for the ball with Nash. Tweet! "Jump ball," Salvatore called.

At that split second, Walton's foot appeared to be on the out-of-bounds line. But none of the three refs saw that, either. Yes, Walton was allowed a center jump against Nash, which Walton easily won.

Commissioner David Stern said the other day that his refs are wrong only about 5 percent of the time. On that play, they were 300 per cent wrong. No foul. No timeout. No out of bounds. Outrageous.

And of course, Kobe retrieved Walton's tap and almost routinely made the jumper that won the game. That clinched it for many people -- Kobe should have been MVP.

Or maybe not.

On Thursday night, Kobe forced up a potential game-winner over Shawn Marion that hit nothing but floor. Air ball.

Kobe forced up a lot of shots -- and he made a lot of those. He went 20-of-35. But without Raja hounding him, Kobe figured he could score over Leandro Barbosa any and every time. He shot too quickly and too often. He was too careless with the ball, committing seven turnovers. He had only five assists. He failed to control the tempo the way he had in the three Laker wins.

Too-cool Kobe got in a run-and-gun game with Nash's team, and predictably, Nash beat him. Nash had 32 points and 13 assists, with only three turnovers. Five of Nash's teammates scored in double figures.



In Game 5 in Phoenix, the refs let Kobe get away with twice elbowing Bell in the face. And the league office took away the Suns' most valuable defender -- their only defender -- for one game because Bell finally stood his ground and showed the Lakers he wouldn't take it any more.

Bell yanked down Kobe by the neck. He didn't elbow him or punch him in the face. He slung him down. Kobe was not hurt.

No way should Bell have been suspended -- not in the bully-ball context of this series. Bring on the Clippers? No, maybe the league office inadvertently did the Suns a favor.

It inspired them.

Raja D'Annunzio is waiting.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.