LOS ANGELES -- Ron Artest kicked off the Lakers' decisive rally by harassing Amare Stoudemire to the limits of legality until Phoenix's big man coughed up the ball in the backcourt. Kobe Bryant then drove the lane, and Stoudemire moved over an instant too late to draw a charge.
Although the Los Angeles Lakers always seemed to be a bit quicker and slicker in a 108-88 victory over the Suns on Sunday night, the defending NBA champions realize their nine-game winning streak almost carries an asterisk, what with the unfair advantages of their home-heavy early-season schedule.
Bryant scored 26 points and Artest added 15 points and five steals as the Lakers raced away from Phoenix in the second half. Eight of their nine wins in a row have been at Staples Center, where the Lakers play 17 of their first 21 overall.
More than 40 percent of the Lakers' home games for the season will be finished by Friday. That's why nobody in purple and gold is getting too excited about the first quarter of the season, even after a second impressive win over the Lakers' closest competitors in the Pacific Division.
"No partying at all," said Pau Gasol, who scored 14 points. "We understand we have so many home games together. I want to see us do this on the road in tougher situations against teams that are ready to play. Right now we're in good shape, but we've still got a long way to go."
Two nights after Bryant banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a one-point win over Miami, the Lakers didn't need another lucky shot. They made a 15-1 run late in the third quarter keyed by Artest's defense, holding Phoenix without a field goal for 3 1/2 minutes while jumping to a 23-point lead.
The well-rested Lakers improved to an NBA-best 16-3 with their second home win in 24 days over road-weary Phoenix, which got 18 points and eight rebounds from Stoudemire in its lowest-scoring game of the season.
The result was almost predictable for a club playing its sixth game in six cities over the past 10 days, but Phoenix refused excuses after its third straight road loss by an average of more than 21 points.
"They're a little bit better than us right now," said Steve Nash, who had 12 points and 10 assists while playing just 29 minutes and sitting out the fourth quarter along with Stoudemire and Grant Hill.
"They've been playing together a little longer, and they're bigger," Nash added. "We've got some ground to make up. We've done well, but we've got a lot of work to do before we're in they're class, so it's OK."
Los Angeles hasn't played outside of California since Nov. 13, and two more dates still remain in a six-game homestand.
Bryant had nine points in the third quarter, including a 3-pointer that put the Lakers up by 21. The Suns trimmed the lead to 14 points in the fourth before Shannon Brown hit back-to-back 3-pointers, finishing with 12 points.
"We kind of pushed ourselves into the win," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It was a good game for us defensively. Any time you hold Phoenix under 100 points, you know that you did good."
Los Angeles has met under fortunate circumstances twice this season. On Nov. 12, the rested Lakers beat Phoenix at home 121-102, one night after the Suns played a tough home game -- just as they did Saturday night against Sacramento.
The Lakers played their league-high 15th home game, while Phoenix had its league-high 14th on the road.
"We're on the road a lot, and it's tough," said Hill, who had 12 points. "We're kind of tired of it, but we'll make up for it in January, February, March. We're going through a tough period right now with our schedule, but we've just got to weather it. ... I don't want to make an excuse out of it, but we'd like to give it our best shot. More than one home game at a time would be nice."
Los Angeles had a superior jump from the opening tip. The Lakers raced to an 11-point lead in the first quarter and hit six 3-pointers in the half, taking a 54-44 halftime lead with late 3-pointers by Artest and Derek Fisher.
Referee David Jones left the game in the first quarter after a bout of dizziness. He was taken to a hospital, and the game continued with two referees -- Kevin Fehr and Derrick Stafford. ... After Friday's home game against Minnesota, 19 of the Lakers' next 28 games are on the road. ... Gasol missed the Lakers' first meeting with Phoenix with a hamstring injury. Los Angeles is 8-0 since his return to the lineup.
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