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THESE KIDS DO THE DARNDEST THINGS.

Byline: Steve Dilbeck

PHOENIX -- Say this about Phil Jackson, he knows his Lakers.

"We just have an unpredictable team," Jackson said.

Yep, youth, what are you gonna do? One day they're skipping chores and blowing curfew, the next they're all polite and attentive, just making you so proud. They're up, they're down. They're giddy, they're sure their world is coming to an end. The Lakers can pull this act from game to game, or in special cases like Wednesday, all within a single game.

In a playoff game the Lakers very much needed to win, they hung tough with the Suns, blew by them with a 19-0 run, surrendered all but three points of the lead, went back semi-comfortably ahead, let it slip away again and then brought it home with a 99-93 victory. Kids, they can make things exciting.

Now it is a real series, all tied at a game apiece. Now the Lakers truly believe they can win. Return to Staples Center for the next two games knowing what they have to do to beat the speed-freak Suns.

"They relaxed a little bit and played a much more comfortable game, moving the ball and doing the things they do well," Jackson said.

The game opened with the curious all waiting to see whether Kobe Bryant would start with a flurry to quiet critics from his curiously non-assertive Game 1, or if the Lakers would continue with their pound-it-inside scheme.

What the Lakers got, what Jackson was most interested in, was something in between. And for most part, it worked better than anyone could have imagined.

Kobe was more aggressive, but steering clear of the one-man gang routine. The ball did go into Kwame Brown, at least those times he actually caught it. The Lakers did control the tempo. They did bring a heightened defensive intensity. They also got a nice assist from the Suns, who save for Steve Nash, couldn't find an open shot they couldn't miss.

In the first quarter it looked Nash was the one determined to silence critics, to be more aggressive. Then again, with the rest of the Suns missing jumpers, layups and dunks, he had to take charge just to keep them in the game. In the opening quarter, Nash was 4 of 5 from the field. The rest of the Suns were 2 of 13.

And it turned out, it was only the beginning. During a 7-minute, 22- second stretch that began with 1:30 left in the first quarter, the Suns did not score a single field goal. All while the Lakers were playing smart, getting that range of contributions Jackson hope for, keeping the Suns from the line, controlling the boards, driving to the basket, mixing in few 3-pointers, looking very comfortable.

"That's our formula," Kobe said.

Right, like it has been all season.

The Lakers led 24-22 at the end of the first quarter and then saw their lead rise faster than gas prices. The were up 38-22 before the Suns finally ended their drought on a Raja Bell jumper. The Lakers pushed their lead to as much as 17 before taking a 53-38 lead at the half.

The 15-point lead did not feel the least bit safe. Not with the way kids can be. Not with the Suns the most explosive team in the NBA.

Sure enough, the charge came the moment as the second half began. In the opening 6:35 of the third quarter, the Suns cut the L.A. lead down to 61-58. But the kids had an answer. Did not wilt - or at least not completely.

"We're so young, we don't know any better," Kobe said. "It's kind of working to our advantage."

Of course, the Lakers also had Kobe at his best. He matched Nash with a game-high 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting, added 10 rebounds and five assists.

Still, the Lakers continued to get nice contributions from a variety of players. Really did the balanced thing.

Lamar Odom continued his aggressive play. He made nine of 12 field goals for 21 points, adding seven rebounds and five assists. Brown continued as a factor inside with 12points, Sasha Vujacic connected on three 3-pointers. Just the way Jackson had it planned.

The Suns, naturally, had another charge left. They cut the L.A. lead back to 3 points with 1:51 left. The Lakers' finish was not a thing of beauty, but they did enough. Kept playing hard. Came out of Phoenix with a split.

"We've had a lot of stretches where we played well, but closing games has been one of our problems with our inexperience and mistakes we made down the stretch," Jackson said. "It was important for this team tonight to be able to be confident in closing the game."

They held on, made it a series, and no doubt, took a nice jump in that youthful development. The balanced attack plan worked. Kobe was more aggressive. The series was tied. And for one night, the kids were all right.

stephen.dilbeck(at)dailynews.com.

(818) 713-3607
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 27, 2006
Words:846
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