LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant dribbled toward the Lakers’ bench, luring Channing Frye and Jason Richardson along with him. Bryant leaned back and launched a feather-soft jumper over Phoenix’s double team, neatly beating the first-quarter buzzer.
That’s about when the Suns should have noted the bright yellow brace on Bryant’s right knee is the color of a caution sign.
Even with a balky knee and a litany of additional woes, Bryant still is among the most dangerous postseason scorers in NBA history — and he had no problem giving Los Angeles an early leg up in the Western Conference finals.
Bryant scored 40 points, Lamar Odom added 19 points and 19 rebounds, and the Lakers opened the series with ruthless offensive efficiency in a 128-107 victory on Monday night.
“Just being aggressive, playing my game,” Bryant said. “Got shots, took them. Got lanes to the basket, took them.”
Pau Gasol had 21 points for the top-seeded Lakers, who won their seventh straight playoff game and snapped the Suns’ six-game streak with a phenomenal second half, highlighted by Bryant’s 21-point third quarter. He barely stepped on the Lakers’ practice court during the past week to rest his ailing knee, ankle, finger and back — all minor impediments to a major talent.
“I practice so much during the season,” Bryant said. “In the offseason, I work a lot. To take a week off, I’m not going to lose all the work I put in prior to that.”
The defending NBA champions beat the third-seeded Suns at their own uptempo game when necessary, fluidly running the court to set up baskets for Bryant in his sixth straight 30-point game. Bryant then rested for most of the fourth quarter in the 11th 40-point game of his playoff career.
“They played great, one of the best games I’ve seen them play in the playoffs this season,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “Kobe kind of controlled the whole game. I thought we could have withstood the game that he had ... but when he’s making his jumper like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Amare Stoudemire scored 23 points and Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists for the Suns, who hadn’t lost since April 24. Robin Lopez started at center and scored 14 points in his playoff debut, but Phoenix couldn’t keep up with the champs’ height and 58-percent shooting in the Suns’ first conference finals appearance since 2006.
The Suns also ran into the same height problems faced by Utah and Oklahoma City earlier in the Lakers’ playoff run. Los Angeles committed just nine turnovers in Game 1 — its third straight single-digit turnover game — while outrebounding the smaller Suns 42-34.
“They’re probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on, so we’ve got to ... make everything as tough as possible,” said Nash, whose injured eye didn’t bother him. “We played hard, but we didn’t make enough shots, and we had a few too many breakdowns.”
Both teams swept their second-round series to earn their third postseason date in five years, but the Lakers didn’t allow a week off to affect their remarkable execution. They scored easily and often, even with center Andrew Bynum managing just four points while playing shakily on his own sore knee.
After a 62-point first half for the Lakers, Bryant alternated jumpers and strong drives while Los Angeles pulled away, making a 13-2 run in the third quarter. His 13-for-23 shooting performance included three 3-pointers and 11 free throws with just one miss.
“Kobe carried a lot of the offense tonight, no doubt,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I will say he was going to shoulder the game. He was going to take it on. He’s been very optimistic through the whole week. He felt like he had the amount of rest and shooting he had to have. He was attentive and involved (in practice).”
The Suns sent Bryant, Odom and the Lakers home for the summer in 2006 and 2007, and Los Angeles’ veterans acknowledged a measure of revenge in their minds — as long as they’re healthy enough to do it.
Jackson revealed before the game that Bryant’s right knee was drained “a while ago,” moving it to the top of the injury list for last season’s NBA finals MVP. But Bryant showed no ill effects, and he even bounced back up after hitting his head on Richardson’s knee during a drive in the first quarter.
“He’s the best scorer in the league,” said Odom, who set a career playoff high for rebounds in his most assertive game of the current postseason. “Drives, fadeaways with his back to the basket, inside-outside, with his left hand. Time off is exactly what he needed.”
PBT: Between Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph versus that of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs-Grizzlies Western Conference finals series promises to be a battle of the bigs. But don't forget about that point guard matchup.
PBT: Lance Stephenson led Indiana with 25 points in a win that eliminated his hometown team. Stephenson and the Pacers will face the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Celebs shined at the NBA playoffs
A look at the many celebrities who made appearances during this year's NBA playoffs.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Grizzlies ready for 'running' Spurs
DPS: Lionel Hollins tells us how he plans to play against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
Latest from ProBasketballTalk
Thunder GM says team won’t amnesty Kendrick Perkins5 hr 34 min ago
Get your NBA cheer on
Check out some of the dancers from the NBA.