Everything is bigger in Texas…especially when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are in town. On the first night of a back to back, the Lakers arrived in Dallas fresh off a week’s worth of, “he said, they said, no one said.” Tonight they let their playing do the talking, and in the end, the men in purple got the last word.
The Lakers were all business when they walked onto the court. There was a seriousness about them before the tip, like something was locked in – pure focus. With his first jumper over Dirk Nowitzki in the opening seconds, Pau Gasol set the tone for the rest of the 47 minutes and 39 seconds. Whatever he lacked the last time the Lakers were in Dallas, getting swept out of last season’s playoffs, it popped up in bunches tonight as he rattled off 12 points in the first quarter to his counterpart, Nowitzki’s zero.
There would be no 36-point blow-outs by the home team this time. No Andrew Bynum clotheslining smaller players, and definitely no Jason Terry running all over the court with his arms outstretched in victory. Despite losing a 14-point lead in the second quarter, and then going into the final minute of the game with a 7-point lead but then missing six straight free throws, the Lakers remained undeterred, as did the Mavericks, which made for an exciting, hard-fought game between two Western Conference teams who have been written off but are still battling to maintain their good name.
The Case for Pau – He broke his double-double streak but 24 points on 11-18 from the field, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals? I think he’ll live. The 2-6 from the charity stripe and the five turnovers aside, Gasol played a great game, and he was as aggressive as we’ve seen him this season. In the first quarter alone, his array of offensive weapons was on full display – turnaround jump shot, left-handed hook shot, 15-foot jumper, turnaround bank. Seriously Pau, stop showin’ off. Oh who are we kidding? THIS is the guy that helped win those two championships. Despite trade rumors that have plagued him all season long, Gasol played like a free soul tonight and why shouldn’t he? His fellow Euro, Nowitzki, may be an offensive genius, but a defender he is definitely not. In addition, Gasol’s court vision and awareness? Still one of the keenest in the league, tossing two lobs in a row for big man buddy, Bynum, in the opening minutes of the game and then staying with a play after missing a free throw to receive a pass and score. He also attempted the most shots in the game which, sorry, Mamba, should happen more often than not. After a game like tonight, how could Lakers’ management, in good conscience, send him away?
Big Drew – Getting ready for this first active All-Star weekend, Bynum continued his string of solid, if not dominant, games with 19 points on 6-10, 14 rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and just one turnover. He looked like he had the most fun in tonight’s game, getting his way with Brendan Haywood who is absolutely no match for him, except maybe in height. At one point, Bynum backed Haywood down about six feet from the hoop before tossing in a hook shot over him. No one in a Mavs uniform could do a thing about the Lakers’ big kid. He converted lobs (one huge one late in the fourth from Bryant which gave the Lakers a 7-point lead), passed out of double teams (one to a cutting Troy Murphy who scored and another to Derek Fisher who hit a three), and just overpowered everyone on the glass. His development has been the team’s, dare we say it, stability in a season mired by everything but that.
Big Fish – In a game where his fellow captain couldn’t throw a rock into the ocean, Derek Fisher came through, again, when the team needed him. 15 points on 6-8, his season high, doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but with Fish, it’s never how much he scores. It’s WHEN. He hit one shot in the first quarter, didn’t score the entire second, then hit back to back jumpers to open the third. After Jason Kidd hit a three pointer to cut the Laker lead to a single point, Fisher answered back to put the lead back to four. More than halfway through the final quarter and the Lakers holding on to a slim two-point lead, Bynum found Fish wide open and he hit the three again to put the lead back up to five points and then followed that up with a running floater to hike the lead up to seven.
Bench – The Mavericks bench outscored the Lakers’ bench 29-19 for the night, but the Lakers’ largest, though short-lived, 14-point lead in the second quarter was created by the reserves. Up by two points to open the second, the Laker reserves outscored the Mavs on the floor 13-7 in the first five minutes. Like the benchmob of old, the Lakers’ second unit this season plays at a quicker pace and is made up of capable perimeter shooters.
Road Victory – The highest point of the game? The win – of course! And not just any win. Tonight was a win against the team with the fourth best record in the Western Conference, winners of seven of their last eight games. And it was all done with Bryant shooting just 4-15 from the field. Which brings us to…
The UnMamba – Credit Dallas’ defense on Bryant tonight – he was challenged at every step and every turn by practically every player on the court in a white jersey. 15 points on 4-15, an uncharacteristic 5-9 from the free throw line (0-2 in the closing seconds of the game?!) and seven turnovers. It wasn’t Bryant’s night, to say the least. but he did hit 2-5 from downtown, grabbed five rebounds, handed out five assists and a steal. Thankfully, Fisher was able to compensate. Is fatigue finally catching up to Bryant? He played almost 38 minutes tonight after playing almost 36 on Monday. He will, of course, never use that as an excuse but it can’t be ignored. It will be interesting to see how he fares in tomorrow’s game, the second night of a back to back, against the league-leading Oklahoma City Thunder.
Free Throws – The Lakers attempted 15 more free throws than the Mavericks and they missed 13. 13 MISSED POINTS! In close games, that will always come back to haunt and the Lakers are lucky they managed to win tonight despite this anomaly. And it wasn’t so much the amount of free throws they botched – it was WHEN. Ahead by seven points with just over a minute left in the game, Matt Barnes, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol missed six free throws in a row, and added insult to injury when they allowed Jason Terry to hit a three and Nowitzki to tip in a missed shot to bring the Lakers’ once 7-point lead to a winnable (for the Mavs anyway) two points. If Barnes and Fisher hadn’t hit three of the final four free throw attempts, this game might’ve gone into overtime, or worse, it could have been a loss. The Lakers hit just 58% of their free throws – wow.
Turnovers – 30 turnovers total in this game. To say this game was on the sloppy end would be an understatement. The Lakers were responsible for 17 of those (seven which belonged to Bryant) and Dallas took advantage to the tune of 11 fast break points to the Lakers’ four. The Mavericks weren’t exactly protecting the rock either though. In one sequence, Jason Kidd threw a pass to Brian Cardinal, who watched the ball whiz by his face and out of bounds. Late in the game, with just over a minute left and the Lakers up by five, Jason Terry threw a pass to Dirk Nowitzki, which he didn’t even look prepared to receive.
Rebounds, rebounds – Until it’s said ad nauseum, the best rebounding team in the league with the two seven footers should never be outrebounded. The Lakers gave up 21 offensive rebounds to the Mavs, which resulted in 20 second chance points, accounting for almost 25% of their score. Way too many!
In a meeting led by co-captains Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant after Monday’s win against Portland, the Laker leaders had a simple message – it doesn’t matter who said what about this person getting traded or not traded, which guy is getting more minutes and so on. At the end of the day, the only people responsible for what happens on the court are you and your teammates. Basically – forget everything that’s out of your control and play for the guy running alongside you on the court, the one setting you up for a shot or covering your man on a switch – play for them and no one else.
Tonight was a big win for the Lakers, not because of their opponent, not because it took place on the road, but because they won it as a team. They won it because Andrew Bynum’s most animated moment of the game was after his assist on Derek Fisher’s three, running after his captain for a giant bear hug. They won it because Kobe Bryant couldn’t hit a shot if he was sitting on the backboard, but was as happy as a clam, chest bumping Bynum after he converted off Bryant’s lob. They won because Pau Gasol remembered what an assassin he can be whether he’s shooting or passing off to a teammate. They won despite the media around them talking too much and their management not talking enough. The Lakers won tonight, simply, for the guys sitting next to them on the bench.