It’s been like clockwork for these Lakers this season. They get an impressive win, and then follow it up with a stinker. After besting the Dallas Mavericks in their first meeting since getting eliminated from last year’s playoffs, they were clobbered by the Heat in Miami. A huge win the following week against the Clippers, was followed by a loss to a short-handed Bucks team in Milwaukee. After a gritty, hard-fought victory in Boston, they lost in a poor effort in New York against the Knicks. After defeating Miami at Staples during a Sunday afternoon game, they dropped two in a row against the super-sub-.500 Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. Last week, the Lakers took the season series away from the Clippers and then lost their season series to both the Houston Rockets, who are seventh in the West and the Phoenix Suns, who are still fighting to make a playoff berth. After that thumping they gave the second seed San Antonio Spurs, a letdown tonight would have been disappointing, but it wouldn’t have been surprising. Fortunately for us, no letdown was in sight.
With the post-season just six games away, now is as good a time as any to break those bad habits and adopt new ones, especially if they involve winning. After an inspiring win in San Antonio, the Lakers met the Denver Nuggets tonight and continued their mission to finish off the regular season on the right foot going into the playoffs. Absent for tonight’s game was Coach Mike Brown, who had to head home before tip-off to take care of a family matter, but in his stead was assistant coach, John Keuster.
After the first quarter, it looked like the Lakers had picked up where they left off a couple of days ago, getting what they wanted on offense (52% from the field with Andrew Bynum’s 10 points leading the way), because of what they were doing on defense (allowing Denver to convert just 35% of their shots). They outscored the Nuggets 30-19 before Denver finally woke up.
For the final three quarters, the Lakers’ lead oscillated from double to single digits, until it reached a single point late in the game. With Mr. Fourth Quarter, Kobe Bryant, sitting on the bench in his suit for the fourth game in a row, the Lakers’ guardian angel for the night came to the rescue in the form of Matt Barnes. Andrew Bynum may have led the game with his 30 points, and Metta World Peace kept them in the game in the first half, but the final quarter belonged to Barnes’ nine points on 4-5 from the field.
Leaders of the Pack – Matt Barnes mentioned that ever since Derek Fisher left, they’ve had leadership “by the unit,” meaning certain guys have stepped up to chip in, and it’s been the group of veterans collectively guiding the team. Kobe Bryant isn’t in uniform, but he’s constantly talking to teammates during timeouts, before they check into the game, after they check out of the game, is listening in and talking in the huddles. Assistant Coach John Keuster called him the fifth assistant on the bench who provides a calming influence on his teammates and is a great source of suggestions when certain in-game situations arise.
Pau Gasol is doing a little bit of everything – scoring, playmaking, defending, being more vocal. There’s been so much talk of Bryant’s absence, Bynum’s dominance, the excellent play of World Peace and Barnes, the improved play of Steve Blake and the impact of Ramon Sessions, that Gasol’s been the silent assassin. He had 21 points in San Antonio but MWP’s 26 points and Bynum’s 30 rebounds took over the headlines. He had a double-double tonight, 14 points and 10 rebounds, in addition to five assists and three blocks, but other teammates’ successes have been the more heralded items of discussion. He will never complain about the lack of spotlight though because humility is Gasol’s middle name, an important quality that’s often lost in a league so full of theatrics. The timing has been everything for the resident Spaniard – Derek Fisher was traded so Gasol moved up to co-captain with Bryant. Bryant goes down with an injury so Gasol must drop his nice-guy, deferring ways and prove to himself, the team and the league, that he is fully capable of leading. Despite his six turnovers for the night, for example, he blocked Andre Miller’s layup, which would have brought their lead down to just one point, but Gasol was resilient until the very end. So far, he’s doing an admirable job at co-captaining!
Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace – Call them the Laker “bash brothers” turned leaders, because with their rough-around-the-edges reputation in the league, no one would have expected Barnes and World Peace to be the level-headed, encouraging guides that they’ve become on this team. And they appear to be especially leading each other. World Peace said after the game, “We hold each other accountable. [Matt Barnes] holds me accountable, if I’m not hustling, and talking and reactive. We have to step up and get on Matt Barnes’ energy.”
Matt Barnes – Aside from being one of the team’s veteran leaders, Barnes deserves a special mention all his own because of what he put out tonight. 24 points on an ultra efficient 9-11 from the field, including a perfect 4-4 from behind the arc. Talk about on-fire! One of Barnes’ strengths, all season long, is his mere activity. He doesn’t stand around and wait for the ball to land in his area, he follows it and it’s paid off in dividends. After Steve Blake intercepted a pass on the defensive end, Barnes received it and bolted down the court for a left-handed dunk. He dribbled baseline in one possession and scored on a difficult layup in traffic, got the foul and completed a three-point play. To end the first half, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a jumper at the buzzer. With the Laker lead down to a single point, he hit a three-pointer in the final quarter. And it was only fitting, in the Nuggets’ final possession of the game, that Barnes grab the final rebound which earned him a double-double. With those 24 points came 10 rebounds, a pair of assists, and whole lot of energy that you just can’t measure with a stat.
Metta World Peace– He scored on a lay-in and then got fouled, so he got down on one knee on the baseline in front of the row of
photographers, and blew kisses to the crowd. That’s MWP for ya’, having a great game and having fun while he’s at it! 14 points, eight rebounds, three assist and five huge steals tonight. John Keuster was asked about MWP in the post-game presser, and he was very complimentary, mentioning that their starting forward was in great shape, is able and always willing to take on any challenge to guard positions 1-4, that his demeanor in practice and in games has been impressive to the coaching staff and the team. When asked about his performance of late, however, MWP answered, “It’s not about what we do as individuals. It’s all about what we do is a team.”
Andrew Bynum – He gets doubled before he even touches the ball, but when he gets in position to go in for the kill – he goes for it. After grabbing 30 rebounds against the Spurs in his last game, Bynum scored 30 points on 11-19 in tonight’s game. With former Nugget, Nene, traded off, there was no one in a Denver uniform who could cover Bynum alone, and even when they sent double and triple teams his way, he managed to either score anyway, or pass it on to a teammate who could. Bynum scored in every which way, with the running hook seemingly his most indefensible shot. He sat in the locker room with feet buried in a cooler full of ice, both knees wrapped up in ice as well and, after being asked about his 30 points, complained that he had four turnovers and only 3 assists. “I need to get my assists up,” Bynum said. He’s always looking for ways to improve and, the three-point dream notwithstanding, we couldn’t ask for much more.
Andrew Bynum’s rebound letdown – We know he wouldn’t grab another 30 rebounds tonight, but to get just eight boards? Barnes had double-digit rebounds. There’s no excuse for Bynum not to have at least 10-12 rebounds a night.
Lost double-digit leads – …as in more than one double-digit lead lost…in one game. In the first quarter, they led by as many as 14 points, but it went down to just six in the opening minutes of the second quarter. In that second quarter, they built up a 15-point advantage that quickly turned into four points and, if not for Barnes’ buzzer beater, wouldn’t have closed the half with the six-point lead. In the third quarter, they managed to bring the lead back up to 13 points, which was, yet again, brought down to six in the opening seconds of the final quarter. In that fourth quarter, they got to a 12-point advantage that dwindled down to a single point with just under four minutes left in the game. Lapses in focus on both ends of the court, and most of all, lapses on defense. There is no excuse for Matt Barnes to lose Arron Afflalo as he drove into the paint, and no excuse for Andrew Bynum to watch him get an open layup. NONE. Denver is an inside team. They, like the Lakers, thrive in the paint and tonight, the home team did very little to protect that painted area, where they were outscored by the visitors.
Turnovers – 23 turnovers in all, 10 in the third quarter alone. MWP spoke about the importance of controlling the tempo, yet tonight, they let Denver play their fast-paced game. After allowing the Spurs just 80 possessions on Wednesday, the Lakers gave the Nuggets 91 attempts to their 75.
Ramon Sessions – It’s most likely due to his shoulder strain, but Sessions hasn’t been the explosive scorer that he had been, of late. Thankfully, it hasn’t been a detriment to a team full of scorers, and he still managed to hand out six assists tonight. Still, the question remains – if Sessions continues to play on that bum shoulder, how effective will he be when the playoffs come around? Here’s hoping for the best.
Without their a head coach and best player on the floor, the Lakers could have let one slip away, but like Barnes said in his post-game interview, they know the playoffs are nearing and are aware of what’s at stake. “It’s playoff time, baby. It’s time to go,” he said. “It’s time to get the championship.” Incidentally, tonight’s win clinches the playoffs for the Lakers. It’s all about maintaining a favorable seed from now on.