Lakers 99, Suns 95: At the buzzer

Two in a row!

Yes, that's a big deal these days. Solid work for the Lakers in the Valley of the Sun, as they continue trying to build a little momentum heading into the second half of the season. Plenty of work to be done, but as it was Tuesday against the Pistons, tonight brought positive signs.

Three Up:

1. Kobe Bryant. How he measures a game is always of primary importance, because nobody has the ability to enhance or disrupt the Lakers' game plan like Bryant. Most of the time, he gets it right, and tonight Kobe was very much on point. He was quiet early, allowing guys like Bynum to get active, taking (and making) his first shot at the 5:51 mark of the first quarter. He'd hit two more jumpers in the next 1:40, finishing the first quarter with seven points on a very efficient three-of-four from the floor, and the Lakers, no surprise, had a dominant offensive quarter, shooting 12-for-19 as a team.

The Lakers opened the third down a point, and Kobe didn't waste much time, teeing up a three for L.A.'s first points of the half, then finishing a spectacular and-one in the paint, absorbing a shot from Robin Lopez and somehow managing to get the ball to fall of glass. He'd set up Pau Gasol for one of the Spaniard's only positive offensive plays (more on that below) with a nice baseline drive and kick, found Ron Artest for a corner three, distributing from the mid-post out of the double team. In the end, he scored 12 points with three dimes in the third quarter. The fourth saw a little less scoring, but two critical assists down the stretch, setting up big jumpers from Artest and Derek Fisher.

The final line, while certainly solid, wasn't his most spectacular (24 points, nine-of-17 from the floor, seven boards, five dimes), but as we've noted, Kobe need not be gaudy to control what happens on the court.

2. Andrew Bynum. He was extremely active early, working the offensive glass and making himself available to teammates as a safety valve, and forcing the Suns to either give up easy buckets or foul. They chose the latter, as Bynum earned six free throws in the first six-plus minutes of the game. Granted, he only made two (the free throw line continues to be a problem for Bynum, normally very solid from the stripe, particularly for a seven-footer). Since his return to the lineup, Bynum has talked about trying to build back his timing and feel. Early in the fourth, he demonstrated his improvement in those areas. Isolated on the left block against Channing Frye, Bynum patiently backed him down, mindful of a sure-to-come double team. Sure enough, Jared Dudley dropped down to help, and Bynum calmly spun to the lane, split the double, and scored, and-one.

Sure, he missed the free throw, but in a couple weeks, he won't.

Defensively, the Suns always represent a tough matchup for him, given how they spread the floor, but Bynum came up with a couple big blocks, and showed some solid agility when switches forced him to guard smaller players. There were weak moments against Steve Nash and Phoenix's pick and roll, but find me a big who doesn't get burned by the two time MVP. The final numbers (14 points on six-for-10 shooting, seven boards, two blocks in 27 minutes) were solid, and more importantly Bynum was aggressive (as demonstrated by a powerful two handed jam running the floor and filling the lane in the first quarter). He pushed people around, went hard at the glass, and made himself a presence.

Just work on those freebies, before someone busts out the Hack-a-Bynum.

3. Ron Artest. Yes, there were times his jumper seemed to travel parallel to the ground, and there were some clanks along the way, but in a season where very little has gone right for Ron Ron Wednesday's game saw enough positives to build a little optimism. As it was Tuesday in the win over Detroit, Artest seemed looser on the floor. In the first quarter, Artest aggressively worked Vince Carter in the paint, drawing early contact, hit a three, and picked up a pair of assists on a nice interior pass to Gasol and a feed to the perimeter for Bryant.

His biggest moment, though, came with ninety seconds left in the game and the Lakers up three, when Bryant found a wide open- take-a-moment-to-tweet-your-peeps-and-ask-them-if-you-should-shoot wide open- Artest set up behind the arc in the left corner. To say the Suns conceded the shot would be an understatement. I swear I heard them quintuple dog dare him to fire away. Artest hesitated, saw nobody was going to contest the shot, gathered, and rose (by Artestian standards) for the jumper. Bucket.

A couple things to note, here: First, Artest hit a huge shot late in the game, something he badly needs for his confidence. Second, that he was even on the floor to have the opportunity was a positive, because it hasn't been the case throughout the year.

I'm not calling Artest "back," but the last two nights- more comfortable on offense, some signs of life on the other end- have seen steps in the right direction.

Three Down:

1. Pau Gasol. The six assists and nine rebounds were nice, as was the block on Carter in Phoenix's final trip icing the game for the Lakers. But the other stuff wasn't good. In many ways, Gasol was the anti-Bynum, too often allowing himself to be bothered by an aggressive Suns defense not content to let him operate in single coverage. With Phoenix throwing multiple bodies at him, Gasol was too often content to settle for jumpers (some open, some very tough), and spent too much time looking at officials on his way back up the floor. He made only three of his 10 shots, and was simply not a factor.

I watched him through multiple possessions, and it wasn't simply a matter of not being aggressive finding position during a possession, but he didn't do all that much to work the offensive glass. More often than not, he just leaned on Marcin Gortat or Lopez, without showing much activity. It was another listless performance from a guy who has strung too many of them together of late.

On a night where Lamar Odom went for 12/10/3 in about 10 fewer minutes, it's probably time to ask this question: If only one of these guys can be an All-Star, shouldn't it be Odom?

2. Derek Fisher. He made up for it a little with the aforementioned jumper in the final minute, but to that point had hit only one of his six shots, and picked up a silly technical foul pushing Gortat in the back after a screen he apparently didn't like. Like a lot of his teammates, Fisher had a little trouble on the P and R, but again, it's Steve Nash running the P and R. There's a reason he's going to the Hall of Fame, and down the stretch the Lakers played some effective defense, holding the Suns to 22 points over the final 12 minutes. Overall, the Lakers did good work vs. Nash, Carter, and Grant Hill.

If Jared Dudley doesn't go off for 19 in the first half, the Lakers likely win going away.

3. Punt. They gave up a few too many open threes, but overall moved the ball pretty well, pounded the Suns on the boards, received solid production from the bench, and came up with buckets and stops when they were required.

I'm not complaining.