LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers are halfway to another NBA finals, and their fans already know who they want their dominant defending champions to play next.
Pau Gasol scored 14 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant had 21 points and 13 assists, and the Lakers roared away in the final minutes for a 124-112 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night to claim a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Ron Artest scored 18 points for the Lakers, who won their eighth straight playoff game and moved within striking distance of a tantalizing NBA finals showdown with the Boston Celtics, who lead Orlando 2-0 in the East. For the second straight game, the chants rained down from the Staples Center crowd in the final minutes: “We want Boston!”
The Lakers remained unbeaten at home in the postseason despite a much-improved effort from the Suns, who lost the opener by 21 points. Phoenix tied it at 90-all heading to the final period of Game 2, but Gasol and Bryant flawlessly led the Lakers to another high-scoring victory, handing third-seeded Phoenix its first back-to-back losses since late January.
“We’ve been able to play both styles of basketball,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We like to control the pace, but we feel comfortable if it’s an accelerated pace.”
The Lakers certainly seem to be accelerating the Suns’ exit from the playoffs after hitting better than 57 percent of their shots and scoring a jaw-dropping 252 points in the first two games.
Game 3 is Sunday night in Phoenix. But unless the Suns figure out a way to stop Los Angeles’ versatile, poised offense, Beantown and Hollywood could be just a few days away from another chapter in their storied rivalry.
“We can’t slow them down,” Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. “I thought we played well offensively, but every time we tried to make an adjustment to slow them down offensively, they would go somewhere else. There’s a good reason they’re the world champs, but we’ll keep plugging away, keep trying.”
The Lakers have lost only one best-of-seven playoff series in franchise history after taking a 2-0 lead, winning the other 41. The 15-time champions haven’t won eight straight games in the same postseason since their famous one-loss run through the 2001 playoffs.
“We still scored enough points tonight, but when they can score 120-something, that’s asking the offense to score too much,” said Phoenix’s Steve Nash, who had 11 points and 15 assists. “If we’re going to beat them, we’ve got to find a way to slow them down.”
The crowd enthusiastically booed Amare Stoudemire, who on Tuesday belittled Lamar Odom’s 19-point, 19-rebound performance in the opener as “a lucky game.” Stoudemire appeared determined to back up his words with aggression, finishing with 18 points and six rebounds while Odom had 17 points and 11 boards in another superb game off the bench.
Grant Hill scored 14 of his 23 points in the third quarter while Phoenix erased a 14-point deficit, playing with more efficiency and aggression than in Game 1. But the Lakers went back ahead by 11 midway through the fourth with a 9-0 run, and the Suns couldn’t stop Bryant and Gasol from executing their two-man game to perfection.
“I was being effective and just finishing plays,” Gasol said. “We just continued to go to it because it was working pretty well for us.”
Although Bryant’s streak of six straight 30-point games ended, last season’s NBA finals MVP set up Gasol for two tough baskets in the final minutes, with Gasol scoring with a flourish and drawing a foul each time. After scoring 40 points in 35 minutes in the series opener, Bryant embraced being a creator, repeatedly finding his teammates out of double teams while setting a career high for assists in a playoff game.
Jason Richardson scored 27 points for Phoenix, and Jared Dudley hit five 3-pointers before fouling out.
Los Angeles led 65-56 at halftime, hitting better than 57 percent of its shots after making 58 percent in Game 1. Bryant had 11 points and nine assists, repeatedly making the Suns pay for double teams.
But the Suns roared back in the third, hitting 14 of 22 shots with Hill’s 14 points and 12 from Richardson, who thrived against Artest’s defense.
Lakers center Andrew Bynum appeared to be moving more fluidly, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the first half — more than he managed in the previous three games combined, when his injured right knee began hindering him.
NOTES: Suns reserve Leandro Barbosa had blood on the back of his head after falling into the first row of cameras when his shot was blocked early in the fourth quarter. … The Suns had more 3-pointers in the first half (6) than they managed in all of Game 1 (5). … Before the game, Jackson said he had discussed taking a pay cut to return to the Lakers next season. Jackson is making about $12 million this season, and the 10-time champion coach hasn’t said whether he’ll return in the fall. … Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Danny DeVito, Hilary Swank, David Spade, Anthony Anderson, Rob McElhenney, Eliza Dushku and former Lakers star Rick Fox were among the celebrities at the game.