Fisher couldn’t miss. 3-pointers landed through the hoop hitting absolutely nothing but net. Bynum spun around and over Dwight Howard, a welcome sight from his lesser role in last season’s Finals. A large lead over the Magic arrived quickly and it appeared that this Finals rematch would end as it did the last time these two teams played — in victorious and dominating fashion.
Unfortunately, the execution by the home team occurred in the first 8 minutes of the game. 40 more awaited.
Fisher’s scoring run hit a brick wall (as did others’) and a lack of ball movement produced nothing but Orlando points. Bynum and Gasol were playing with two fouls apiece, unable to contain Howard and his 18-point first half. And Kobe, oh Kobe, grabbed his hand after an attempted pass to Gasol went awry, his fractured index finger suffering the blow that eventually resulted in a daunting, very un-Mamba like inaccuracy.
The Lakers had once led by thirteen, but after a long, and very difficult to watch, offensive lull, it was suddenly the 3rd quarter, Orlando had found their shooting touch, and the home team lead had turned into an 11-point deficit.
Up until this game, the Lakers were considered the best 3rd quarter team in the league. Their play after halftime was typically too energetic and filled with too much precision for the opposing team, but that night appeared headed for an exception.
I know most of us thought the same thing: How is Kobe going to save us with one of his signature buzzer beaters when he could barely pass the ball? When it doubt, even in the slightest, the Zen Master delivers.
In an attempt to wield some momentum back their way, Phil Jackson substituted some of his starters with the bench duo who have shown glimmers of greatness of late. Farmar and Brown entered the game and, joined by fellow reserve, Odom, the momentum shifted, patiently, yet expeditiously.
17 points. That’s how many the Lakers scored in the opening minutes of the 4th quarter before Orlando could record a measly point off a free throw. A late game surge by Phil’s revived “minutemen” brought the defending Champs close… then got them even… then carried them ahead for the win, even despite last minute 3-pointers by the Magic.
On a night when their leader’s injuries were blatantly hindering his effectiveness in the game, when their budding starting center was, quite literally, sick to his stomach, and on a night where the opposing bench was listed as the bright spot on a talented team like Orlando, a set of reserves who have been criticized all season long for their inconsistent efforts and failure to shoulder the load, played cunningly, determined and with, wouldn’t you know it, a lot of swag. Our bench played like a mob, harassing the Magic into turnover after turnover, continuously beating them to the hoop and most importantly, providing a spark when their team needed firepower.
In the Lakers’ last five losses, the bench averaged 23.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 2.4 apg. In the last five wins, however, the reserves averaged 35.4 ppg, 12.8 rpg and 7.4 apg. On a team that averages over a hundred points a game, three or four reserves providing just one-fifth of the scoring load isn’t enough. 5.4 rpg? Odom by himself could probably attain that in 90 seconds of play. 2.4 apg? In a system incumbent on ball movement, the extra pass can be the difference between a high-percentage shot and a turnover.
Stats only tell half the story, but they don’t exactly tell tall tales. Based on these numbers, wins are absolutely partially dependent on bench production — and they should be! There’s a reason twelve players suit up for a game. The other half of the story is often overshadowed — the trust factor.
When your teammates are injured or can’t seem to score if the hoop was a mile wide, no matter how determined they are to play through the pain or how much they want to shoot through their slump, this team is too competitive to sacrifice a win just to prove themselves. And even when your coach has a weird way of encouraging you (i.e. public statements of your inabilities and weaknesses or book assignments), he’s still probably the smartest man on that bench.
Phil could’ve kept the starters on the floor for the entire 4th quarter in hopes of closing in on Orlando’s lead and then, if needed, depending on Kobe or Fish to heave up another game winner. But this time, Phil summoned the Mob early and the Mob delivered the kill.
With a lengthy road trip that begins today with Mission: Christmas Vengeance, one hopes that this recent string of BenchMob beatdowns is only part of a longer and stronger chain of Laker victories.