by Graham Flashner

Can’t tell you how pumped I was to attend this game. Shaq’s L.A. homecoming. Shaq vs. Bynum, vs. Kobe, vs. Phil Jackson. After his monstrous 35-point demolition of the Bucks, the stage was set for a throwdown in El-Lay.

That was until O’Neal’s 92-year-old great-grandmother died, and he flew back to New Jersey to attend the funeral. Meantime, another kind of death occurred in the Suns family Wed. Pounding down the final nail in the Mike D’Antoni era’s coffin, the Suns peddled Kobe tormentor Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary to Charlotte for sharp shooting two-guard Jason Richardson, reserve forward Jared Dudley and a 2010 draft pick.

On paper, this is a good deal for the Suns, who rid themselves of Diaw’s big contract and Bell’s aging body and attitude. In J.R., the Suns get an explosive three-point shooter and a guy who can knock down 20 ppg. And just ask Shawn Marion (heard of him lately?) about the benefits of playing alongside Steve Nash.

Still, it was a stunning move for a team that was once elite, and has been doing the hoops version of Extreme Makeover ever since acquiring Shaq for the stretch run last year. Just when Shaq-Amare seemed to be jelling, the chemistry has been changed once again, but J.R. should restore the sizzle to an offense that’s gone flat. But will they play the kind of D required to get past the first round of the cruel West Conference Playoffs? Next question.

Pregame

Ninety minutes before tipoff, the press horde massed outside the Suns’ locker room, buzzing about the deal. The old Suns were gone and the new players hadn’t yet arrived so Phoenix was down to the minimum eight players.

But no one’s mind was on the game. The minutes ticked by and the locker room remained closed. Then Matt Barnes walked out, and one of the veteran beat writers chased him down the hall in search of his feelings about the trade. Now, there’s something almost laughable about watching a pudgy, 50-something year-old man in khakis trying to run down a 28-year-old, 6-7 NBA player, but he did. Unfortunately, Barnes wasn’t talking and neither was Nash, who stayed out of sight.

When the locker room opened, only one Sun was there to face the mob: Amare Stoudemire. Amare’s friendly, not the most exciting guy in the room, and mostly toed the company line. A few 22 and 20excerpts:

SLAM: Your thoughts on the trade?
Amare Stoudemire: It hasn’t registered yet. Raja and Boris and Sean all were good friends of mine. It’s one of those things: You have to adjust. The main thing is we’re trying to improve, trying to win a championship. That’s the goal here. Whenever there’s change, we got to accept that. It’s kind of bitter, but the sweet part is we bring in a guy like Jason who can help us.

SLAM: How did you hear about it, and did you get to talk to Raja or Boris?
AS: No. I was kind of in hibernation for three hours after the breakfast meeting. I heard about it when I woke up. Wasn’t able to talk to too many folks about it.

SLAM: How well do you know Jason Richardson?
AS: Well. Jason beat me during the Slam Dunk Contest a few years back. (Laughs) He’s a pretty good defender, guy who can score, another threat for us. We’re just trying to build a camaraderie here.

SLAM: Are you frustrated at all with this season so far?
AS: Not frustrated at all. Just a matter of accepting challenges. We have high expectations.

Over on the Lakers side, Phil Jackson was doing his best to say all the right things—not taking the Suns for granted, praising the deal, and trying to convince reporters there’s no need for a 17-3 team to push the panic button.

Inside the Lakers’ locker room, it was largely empty, save for Sasha Vujacic being interviewed by Danish TV. The Lakers have to lead the League in foreign correspondents, with camera crews from Asia, Slovenia, and Spain jostling for elbow room.

Back on the Suns side, I catch the ever-gracious Grant Hill alone at his locker, though he’s not alone for long. If I was one of the brothas on this site, I’d say I was sidling over to my man Grant. Truth is he’s not my man. He’s not even on my fantasy team (not that I even have a fantasy team), but I’ve always admired the way he plays and the intelligence with which he speaks. Hill said he wasn’t bothered by his brief demotion to the bench (in favor of Matt Barnes) and that he was prepared to play 48 minutes tonight if need be. He couldn’t promise, though, the 48 minutes would be all good. (Hill played 36, and scored 23 pts on 9-11 shooting.)

Forty minutes before game time, the Suns locker room is deserted save for center Robin Lopez, Shaq’s back-up. He’s rocking to his iPod and staring at the floor. On a big screen in front of him, a previous Lakers-Suns game plays. Lopez does not look up.

Five minutes before tipoff, Staples Center feels oddly subdued, as if a giant pin has been taken to the place and all the air sucked out. Some half-dozen courtside seats remain empty. Jack is there, along with that famous music producer who’s always next to him, and Kareem and Magic are there, but the place is dead. No Shaq, no drama.

First quarter

— Surprise, surprise: Luke Walton gets the starting nod over Vladimir Radmanovic. After the disastrous loss in Sacramento on Tuesday, Phil decided to shake things up. Neither Luke nor Vlad heard about the change ‘til right before game time. Vlad will not see a minute of action tonight. Luke dropped six assists in the contest, but is torched by Hill on the defensive end.

— On the Suns white board in the locker room before the game, one of the defensive keys Not so baby.to the game says, ‘Kobe must see a wall’. The Suns send a phalanx of defenders at Bryant every time he tries to cut across the lane. Problem is, Bryant keeps finding Bynum down low. Several times, Bynum is so far under the basket, he has to spin and twist his way through two, three Suns before he can find the rim. Robin Lopez is happy to oblige.

— It’s 15-8 Lakers. Nash hasn’t hit a shot, and the Suns look ready to be run out of the building. Both teams are playing the second of a back-to-back, and the Lakers are coming off a humiliating loss, and the Suns are dressing less guys than a lacrosse team, so you’d think this game will be over early. But the Lakers are playing as dead as the crowd.

— To combat the Lakers’ height advantage, the Suns are playing lots of zone. Not that it helps much: Bynum and Gasol combine for 6-8 shooting. But Kobe’s being contained, and the Lakers are playing the kind of defense that would make the Celtics smile. They lead by four.

Second quarter

— If you’re a straight male in Los Angeles there is no better seat than the courtside seats behind the basket. That’s because the people in those seats (mostly men, funny enough) get to stare at the backs of the Laker Girls all game. When a Laker makes a basket, the Girls jump up and cheer, blocking the men’s sight. So far, I haven’t heard anyone complain.

— Lakers start the quarter with their Bench Mob, the second unit, which has been maligned of late because of lax defense and what Phil called overly stat-conscious offensive play. Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Vujacic and Jordan Farmar are out there with Gasol.

— The Suns counter with Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, and Louis Amundson. The Bench Mob does the job: A quick 9-0 run to give the Lakers their largest lead of the game at 12.

— The last of those points come on a brilliant cross-court pass by the Mob’s newly appointed leader, Odom playing the unlikely role of floor general. His pass catches Farmar in stride and leads to a three-point play. That will be the last Odom highlight for two quarters.

— Dragic finds Amundson for a flying dunk down a wide-open middle. A minute later, Hill finds Stoudemire on a similar play. The lane is emptier than a beach house in winter. On the sideline, Phil shakes his head in pain.

— Right before the half, Bynum’s best post move is nullified by a 24-second violation. Lakers by five.

Third quarter

— Nash seems to be playing in a fog. He’s 0-6 and turning the ball over with disturbing regularity.

— The Lakers are doing just enough to stay ahead. They don’t look like a team on a mission to avenge their loss to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. They look like a bored team for whom playing defense is a major imposition. Up 67-57, they relax, and the Suns come storming back. A 24-15 run to end the quarter.

— With 1:49 left, Lamar Odom has yet to score a point. This can’t be the leadership Phil is looking for.

— Trevor Ariza makes a great steal and drive that ends with him falling into the Laker Girls behind the basket.

Fourth quarter

— The loudest cheer of the night goes to a guy who gives his girlfriend tongue on the “Kiss Me” cam.

— With the Suns ahead 86-85, Odom finally comes alive, scoring his first four points of the Some Matrix sh*tgame. Who said this guy can’t lead?

— The Lakers stretch the lead to six, and then Kobe delivers the capper, an alley-oop reverse jam to an in-motion Bynum.

— As the Lakers reach the 100-point mark, I am reminded of Lawler’s Law, attributed to Clippers’ broadcaster Ralph Lawler, which states that the first team to 100 usually wins. And that team is usually not the Clippers.

— The Lakers lead 107-99 with under a minute to go, and strangely enough, no one has left the building. Why? Because if the Lakers hold the Suns under 100, every fan will win a taco from Jack In The Box. Never mind that the tacos cost a whopping 99 cents, the fans are adamant. A deafening chant of “We Want Tacos” fills the arena. But Stoudemire’s layup blows the dream. Lakers win, but suddenly, no one seems that happy. They’re going home taco-less, and realizing that the Lakers played a mostly uninspiring game, and might be the most morose 18-3 team of all time.

Postgame

It’s easy to think of basketball as just a business, and most players and coaches have the rap down cold, but one look at a subdued Steve Nash in a quiet Suns locker room made me realize how much we underestimate the personal side of the game. Acknowledging he was “blindsided” by the trade of his best friend Bell, Nash looked utterly drained, struggling to find the words to explain.

On his reaction to the trade: “It’s tough…while I’ll welcome my new teammates with open arms, it’s tough when you lose your best friend. It’s tough when you lose two of your best buddies. It’s tough, and it hurts.”

On the direction Suns’ management is going: “I hope it’s not a situation where they are just trying to blow it up. I think we still have got a chance to be a really good team. There’s time to incorporate the new guys.”

On how it affected him personally: “I have a hard time committing to this as a business. I take this personally and I take my career home with me. I care about my teammates. I was pretty flat emotionally (tonight). I was emotionally drained and just couldn’t give the guys what they needed tonight to get the win. But I’m proud of these guys. They played hard tonight. They played well.”

On the winning side of the hall, the Lakers seemed cool with their effort, while copping to the maddening defensive lapses that have seen them give up 100 points in five of their last six games, after giving up 100 only four times in their first 15.

“The way we’re playing, we’re not going to beat the good teams,” Bynum said.

But Kobe, defiant as always, insisted that “We’re OK,” and it was just a matter of spending more practice time to get everyone on the same page. The more Bryant spoke, though, the more you got the distinct feeling that for the Lakers, the regular season is a mere run-up to what everyone figures is their rightful berth in the NBA Finals, in a rematch against the Celtics. The Lakers are only 14 days from their Christmas Day showdown with Boston, and Bryant can’t wait. “We want to see how much we’ve improved,” he said with a sly smile.

Judging by tonight’s game, even at 18-3, they’ve still got a ways to go.