Lakers 109, Suns 89

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LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant made a late-season case for league MVP honors, scoring 43 points and helping the Los Angeles Lakers clinch a playoff berth with a 109-89 rout of the Phoenix Suns.

The Lakers are back in the postseason for the first time since losing the 2004 NBA Finals to Detroit.

The Suns rested Nash and Raja Bell because of thigh-related injuries, leaving Shawn Marion to carry the load in Phoenix’s first loss to the Lakers this season. He had 29 points and Leandro Barbosa added 16 before fouling out early in the fourth. Boris Diaw had 11 points and 12 assists.

The game was over shortly after it started because the Suns shot a woeful 37 percent from the floor and couldn’t stop Bryant, who notched at least 40 points for the 27th time this season. He sat down for good with nearly six minutes left.

He scored the game’s first three baskets – on a driving layup, a steal and fast-break dunk and a 3-pointer. He also had a block of Marion and scored 25 points by halftime.

The Lakers led by 13 after one quarter and by 21 at the break after scoring the first nine points of the second period.

Bryant finished 11-of-28 from the floor and made 20 of 23 free throws as fans chanted “MVP! MVP!” during the nationally televised game.

Nash could only watch in street clothes from the bench, getting booed when his face appeared on the overhead scoreboard.

The Suns’ roster is crowded with injuries days before the playoffs begin. Nash, who missed his second straight game, has a right thigh contusion; Bell has a left thigh strain; Amare Stoudemire underwent season-ending knee surgery 11/2 weeks ago; Kurt Thomas is out for the rest of the regular season because of a stress fracture in his right foot; and Dijon Thompson had right knee surgery last month.

The Lakers stopped a couple of losing streaks against the Suns: four straight games at Staples Center and seven overall – the longest Los Angeles slide in series history.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson used the blowout to get everyone some playing time with only Wednesday’s game against New Orleans left before the playoffs open.

Lamar Odom, coming off consecutive triple-doubles, added 14 points and 11 rebounds. Smush Parker had 12 points and Kwame Brown 10.

Los Angeles led by 26 points in the third before Phoenix cut it to 13 early in the fourth. The Suns never got under double digits.

Notes: The Suns won the season series 3-1. … Lakers C Chris Mihm remained out because of a severely sprained right ankle, with Jackson saying Sunday wasn’t the time or the game to bring him back. … Kareem Abdul-Jabbar celebrated his 59th birthday at the game. … Paris Hilton attended the game wearing Bryant’s No. 8 jersey with her name on the back. She got booed and responded by saying, “Nice.” … Jack Nicholson dressed in his Easter Sunday best, wearing a jacket and purple tie instead of his usual rumpled look.

AP-ES-04-16-06 1807EDT

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