Kobe-less Lakers #NoProblem for Suns

Suns center Hamed Haddadi blocks Lakers big man Dwight Howard.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

Apparently Kobe Bryant’s teammates aren’t following him on Twitter.

The Lakers’ All-Star guard, who missed his second-straight game on Monday night with a severe ankle sprain, guaranteed a win via 140 characters earlier in the afternoon.

“He must have seen our score against the Wizards,” joked Suns swingman and Twitter aficionado Jared Dudley after an impressive 99-76 Phoenix victory.

The win snapped a four-game losing skid for the Suns and also marked the team’s fourth straight over their longtime rivals here at US Airways Center, in front of a crowd that had nearly as much purple and gold in it as it did purple and orange. Much like the last time the teams met back on January 30, the atmosphere had a playoff-like feel that fired up the home team.

“It’s the Lakers, it’s the Suns,” Dudley explained. “There is bad blood built up over the years. Our fans don’t like them, and their fans don’t like us. We just feed off that energy. For a young team, that excites us and you could see that we got up to play more tonight. You could tell in the lay-up line, guys were sweating a little bit more.”

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From the moment the game tipped-off, the Suns were playing with an intensity and determination that was missing on last week’s east coast road swing. Starting center Jermaine O’Neal fought down low, stuffing a shot by Lakers All-Star Dwight Howard, and making a hard foul that prevented the big man from what would have been a vicious throwdown.

Second-year forward Markieff Morris matched the tenacity of the 17-year veteran, ripping down seven boards to go with seven points in the opening quarter. A quarter than saw the Suns block five Lakers shots, including another of Howard’s by reserve center Hamed Haddadi.

The 7-2 Iranian continued to impress in the second period with a monster, one-handed dunk, a dive for a loose ball and some physical play on the Lakers’ center, who finished the half with just 4-of-14 shooting.

The second half wouldn’t get any better for Howard, who took just four more shots, or for coach Mike D’Antoni’s team for that matter, which only managed 10 points in the final quarter of play. The “back-in-black” Suns, meanwhile, got important contributions from 10 different players, six of whom put up double-digit scoring.

“It was a great team effort tonight,” said Suns interim Head Coach Lindsey Hunter in the postgame press conference. “Every guy that played did an exceptional job.”

Matched up against his one-time mentor, Steve Nash, Suns floor general Goran Dragic recorded 12 points and 10 assists, including a SportsCenter-worthy pass between Nash’s legs to a cutting Dudley for the layup.

“It just happened,” said a smiling Dragic. “That was the only pass available. If not, he was going to kick it. So I tried and the ball went through, and Stevie gave me that look. I was laughing back. But it was just one play.”

Dragic’s starting backcourt partner Wes Johnson put up 14 points and pulled down nine boards. Rookie point guard Kendall Marshall had his best game as a pro with 11 points, including 3-of-4 shooting from three-point territory, five rebounds and five assists. Forward Michael Beasley contributed 10 points and six boards, including a couple of key fourth-quarter lay-ups.

“That’s the formula for us from now on and into next year,” said Dudley. “When you don’t have a superstar, the ball has to move and you have to get a lot of people scoring. We need everyone scoring, where we have balance.”

While the Suns don’t have a “superstar” this season, and got a well-balanced effort on Monday night, the game ball would have surely gone to Luis Scola, if it had been given out. Coming off the bench, the 32-year-old forward put up 14 points and eight boards in the final period alone, outscoring and outrebounding the entire Lakers team single-handedly, while also frustrating Howard with yet another defensive look.

“I was kind of nervous having him on Dwight, because of the size disadvantage,” admitted Hunter. “But you can never measure a guy’s heart and he showed it tonight.”

Scola, who also hit an uncharacteristic three-pointer in the fourth quarter, knew the Suns couldn’t let up once they got the Lakers down by double-digits. “The Lakers were very close to making a run,” he said. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to make a run ourselves right now. If we don’t, they’re going to come back and it’s going to be very difficult.’ So I just tried to be aggressive.”

The Suns’ win gives the Lakers their 33rd loss on the season, tying them with the Utah Jazz, who they are currently battling for the eighth seed in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. If L.A. misses the postseason, the Suns will receive their lottery pick in this June’s NBA Draft, as part of last summer’s Nash trade. Phoenix, meanwhile, looks to finish out the season strong and continuing to build upon wins like this one.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Hunter. “This is the same team that was blown out on the road. We can’t get too high and we won’t get too low. We’ll stay at a happy medium and we’ll continue to try to get better every day.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but it’s good to get a win like this for our guys’ morale after losing the games the way we have. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Like I said, we’ll stay the course. We’re not going to limp to the finish line. We’ll sprint through.”