Derrick Caracter is still recovering from off-season surgery. Josh McRoberts is still nursing a sprained toe. Troy Murphy has the stomach flu. Jason Kapono is at home with his family, enjoying the company of his newborn twin girls. They probably could’ve used Shannon Brown actually, if he weren’t wearing a Suns uniform, because were the Lakers shorthanded? Yes. Did they let it affect their game? Absolutely, positively not, especially when they’ve got Kobe Bryant on their team and especially when they’ve got dependable teammates to lean on. Tonight, the Lakers needed both and both succeeded to the victorious end.
Much was made before the game about this season’s Phoenix team playing more defense than they have in seasons past. The Suns have been an offensive-centered team for years, and with an elite point guard like Steve Nash leading a crew of talented shooters, they’ve proven to be a dangerous team with which to contend. If their defense has been a more vital part of their game this season, more power to them! Unfortunately, there’s a player who loves to scorch them in every meeting and the Suns still don’t have an answer for him. Kobe Bryant’s got a special spot in his game for Phoenix. He may have forgiven that elimination in 2007, but he will never, ever forget.
Black Mamba Mode – It was like a lion, okay fine a snake, just freed from his cage and devouring everything in sight. That’s what Kobe Bryant looked like tonight. He devoured the Suns defense, most notably Grant Hill, who went just 1-12 for the game, most likely due to fatigue from chasing Bryant all night, and partially due to former teammate, Matt Barnes’ defense. After one quarter, Bryant was 8-11 from the field for 17 points. At the half, he already had 23 points. Halfway through the fourth quarter, with the Laker lead hanging by a one-point thread, it was Kobe Time. He sank 4-4 from the free throw line, then later scored on a bank shot. Alone in the corner with Hill, he stuttered back and forth and then blew by the 39-year old and lifted off for an uncontested dunk. Two possessions later, he received a lob from Matt Barnes and scored on a reverse dunk. Another fadeaway and jumper later, and Bryant was standing on 48 points on 18-31. 58% shooting from the field, 12-13 from the free throw line, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and just two turnovers. “Not bad for an old fella,” he said to Chris McGee in his post-game interview. Nope, not bad at all.
White Swan Mode – It’s easy to overlook Pau Gasol (and every Laker not named Kobe Bryant) on a night like tonight. Actually, this season, with the early emergence of Andrew Bynum, it’s more than easy to overlook him, but the resident Spaniard had another efficient game with 16 points on 7-13 and grabbing 12 rebounds in the process. Gasol is shooting 58% for the season and averaging 9 rpg. If he has been anything so far this year, it’s dependable. He had just six points in the first half, but made some key shots in the second to keep the Lakers afloat.
Well-Reserved – With four players missing from the rotation, Mike Brown placed his trust on the bench and they more than came through, leading in the +/- column in a big way. Luke Walton, a +32 for the game, got 26 minutes of playing time and managed to score six points on 3-7, grab eight rebounds, send out three assists and all without a single turnover. It’s no secret what a tough time Walton has had, between his back troubles keeping him out of the active roster, and then minutes barely becoming available when he’s feeling better. Tonight, however, he showed that he’s been keeping himself prepared for when his number was called and he didn’t disappoint. Metta World Peace, +23, may not have scored in bunches (just five points on 2-6), but he was active, grabbing seven rebounds, playing defense as only he knows how, and making sound decisions with the ball. The Laker leader on the +/- was Steve Blake, who was a +33 for the game. Like Walton and World Peace, Blake didn’t contribute with scoring. He actually led the team with eight assists, tying Steve Nash, who he also played great defense on. Blake only attempted three shots, but with his teammates (namely Kobe Bryant), taking care of the scoring load, he just did what he does best – run the offense, look out for teammates, and temper the pace of the game for the Lakers. Not coming off the bench but contributing handily as he’s been for the last couple of games was Matt Barnes. Like the supporting cast, he didn’t score much, but handing out seven assists and grabbing seven rebounds made an undoubtedly huge impact.
Defense – The Phoenix Suns were held to just 43% shooting for the game and 83 points. Halfway through the fourth quarter, they were within one point of tying the Lakers…until Bryant went off. Phoenix scored just 15 points in the final 12 minutes on 6-18, and just a single point in the final six minutes. The Lakers were relentless in the end, defending the Phoenix PNR as aggressively as we’ve ever seen them defend.
Box Score Explosion – The Lakers outrebounded the Suns 49-35, led by Pau Gasol’s 12 boards. They handed out 27 assists on 39 made field goals, to the Suns’ 18 dimes. Their free throws, a relatively big issue this season, were a solid 83%. And the turnovers? Just 14 for the entire game, which is a vast improvement from the 27 they had on Sunday.
Andrew Bynum – Bynum didn’t have a terrible game, with 12 points on 4-8, eight rebounds, two blocks and just one turnover, but he didn’t look as engaged in this game as he did when he first started the season. The knock on Bynum the last few seasons has been that he checks out of games mentally when he’s not producing offensively. For someone who is averaging a double-double (18.8 ppg and 15.7 rpg to be exact), I expected a lot more from him tonight on the defensive end and on the glass, especially since he’s still trying to work through his inability to play through or out of double teams. There’s no doubt he will learn, but until then, he could do well to continue mastering other parts of his game, like his defense.
It was a great collective effort from the Lakers as a whole, especially with a chunk of the team M.I.A., and it was another huge game to add to Kobe Bryant’s unbelievably long resume of accomplishments. Asked about his performance in tonight’s game, Bryant answered simply that he was just a boy playing the game he loves. Aren’t we lucky to be sitting in the schoolyard?