Suns 107, Lakers 102

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PHOENIX – Even with a poor shooting afternoon from Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers still nearly stole their playoff opener against the Phoenix Suns.

Tim Thomas had 22 points and a career playoff-high 15 rebounds, and the Suns escaped with a 107-102 victory.

Thomas, sent home by the Chicago Bulls for what they thought was a bad attitude for most of this season, then released and signed by Phoenix on March 3, made his first eight shots and finished 8-for-10, 4-for-5 from 3-point range.

Steve Nash had 20 points, including a crucial 3-pointer with 1:07 to play, and 10 assists. The Suns made 32 of 35 free throws, 8-for-8 by Nash. Shawn Marion added 19 points, Boris Diaw 15 and Leandro Barbosa 15, nine in the fourth quarter.

Bryant, the NBA scoring champion with 35.4 points per game, scored 22 points – barely half the 42.5 he averaged against Phoenix in the regular season – on 7-for-21 shooting, 1-of-6 3s. But Lamar Odom had 21 points and 14 rebounds and Luke Walton matched his career best in any NBA game with 19 points.

After a 39-point first quarter, the Suns rarely got their trademark high-speed game in gear.

Trailing by as many as 14 in the second quarter and down 58-50 at the break, the Lakers used an uncharacteristically balanced attack and took advantage of the Suns’ poor shooting to tie it at 75 after three quarters.

Sasha Vujacic’s 3-pointer from the top of the key gave the Lakers their first lead since early in the first quarter, 80-79, with 10:01 to play. Thomas returned to the game and sank the Suns’ first 3-pointer since the opening quarter to put Phoenix back ahead 82-80 9:25 from the finish.

Bryant missed four shots over the next 21/2 minutes and the Suns used free throws – two by Nash and four by Barbosa – to go up 88-82 with 6:21 left. Thomas’ 3-pointer with 5:15 to go put Phoenix ahead 93-85 and Barbosa’s 3 made it 98-89 with 3:49 to go.

The Lakers, though, scored six in a row, the last two by Odom inside, to cut it to 98-95 with 2:12 remaining. Smush Parker, who had 15 points, missed what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer. Raja Bell missed a running 14-footer, but Diaw tipped the rebound to Nash, whose 3-pointer put Phoenix ahead 101-95 with 1:07 to go.

Bryant took only three shots in the first quarter, making two of them, as the Lakers tried to take advantage of the Suns’ small size inside.

But Phoenix used a 10-2 run to go up 21-15 on Bell’s two free throws with 5:34 left in the first quarter. Marion’s 3-pointer, followed by Eddie House’s 22-footer gave the Suns a 39-29 lead at the end of the first.

The Suns shot 61 percent (14-for-23) in the quarter, 5-for-8 from 3-point range.

Phoenix made 5-of-18 shots in the second quarter and 6-of-15 in the third as the Lakers successfully slowed the tempo.

Notes: Lakers coach Phil Jackson lost Game 1 of the playoffs for the first time in his career. … Vujacic made a bank shot from beyond midcourt at the first-quarter buzzer, but it was waved off by officials and replays confirmed the call. … The Lakers were without Chris Mihm because of a sprained right ankle that sidelined him 17 of the last 18 regular-season games. … The Suns’ Brian Grant had a bad stomach and played the final three seconds of the first half only.

AP-ES-04-23-06 1823EDT

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