Tonight was all about streaks. The Miami Heat’s winning streak ended at 27 in Chicago, keeping the ‘71-’72 Lakers’ 33-game winning streak safe and sound. The Lakers arrived in Minnesota and ended a three-game losing streak with their 22nd win in a row over the Timberwolves. Despite this dominance over one team, however, with the way the Lakers’ have been playing, not to mention the bad run of injuries that they are continually forced to endure this season, even a win in Minnesota wasn’t a sure thing. Fortunately, the victory came anyway.
It wasn’t the smoothest, nor was it the cleanest game. Neither team handled the ball very carefully, collectively accumulating 36 turnovers. The Lakers, however, playing without Metta World Peace who had surgery today on a torn lateral meniscus on his left knee, played as they should for a good three quarters and change; distributing the ball, playing defense and keeping the Timberwolves at bay. As per usual, however, the fourth quarter Achilles heel reared its ugly head and a nail-biting last few minutes (that didn’t need to be nail-biting had they maintained their largest lead – 15) ensued. In the end, however, the Lakers got the 120-117 W.
Balance & Ball Movement – When the Lakers have won a game this season, more often than not, good ball movement, which causes balanced scoring, is a factor. Against the Warriors, the ball moved between baskets for the Lakers, but rarely did it move between players on the one side. Tonight, the offense was more fluid, more precise (save the 21 turnovers of course) and it led to higher percentage shots. 40% of the Lakers’ final score was done on the inside, thanks in large part to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, who’s shaken off quite a bit of rust after missing a month and half of action. The Lakers handed out 27 assists, led by Steve Nash’s eight dimes and Kobe Bryant’s seven. Five players scored in double figures, including 18 from Antawn Jamison off the bench, despite the wrist injury he is still nursing.
Dwight Howard – Still questionable in late-game situations at the free throw line, but aside from that, Howard was a monster in every other case. He got into early foul trouble, entering halftime with three fouls and picking up his fourth just three minutes into the third. He had to sit out the rest of the quarter, but came back into the final 12 minutes and went 4-5 for 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and picked up a pair of steals. He finished the game with 25 points on 9-13 from the field, 16 rebounds, five steals and five blocks.
Third Quarter – The Lakers might have had to play without their defensive anchor, Howard, in the third quarter, but they retaliated with their offense. They allowed the Timberwolves to scored 33 points on 65% shooting (!), but the purple and gold poured out 41 third quarter points on 72% from the field. Bryant had 16 points on 7-9. Apparently if you can’t defend them, outscore them.
Turnovers – The Lakers had 15 turnovers in the first half. Fortunately for them, the Timberwolves only scored 13 points from their miscues. They cleaned it up in the second half, committing just six turnovers, but 21 for a game is too much. Had they cut those mistakes in half, their largest lead would have been more than just 15 points.
Fourth Quarter – The fourth quarter was as bad as the third quarter was good. That’s the most accurate way to describe what the Lakers put themselves through with just 12 minutes left to play in the game. They entered the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead after having just shot 72% from the field in the third. Minnesota outscored the Lakers 38-29, shooting 52% while the Lakers could muster up just 40% shooting. With three minutes left in the game, and the purple and gold hanging on to that 12-point lead, Minnesota went to work, hacking Howard into eight trips to the free throw line, of which he hit two. On the defensive end, the Lakers left Dante Cunningham, who went for 18 points tonight, open for jumper after jumper and let Chase Budinger and Ricky Rubio get to the hoop with little resistance. It was literally a fight to the finish, but it’s been the case often this season with these Lakers.
With this win, the Lakers remain attached to that eight seed and have a chance to sweep their first back-to-back of the season tomorrow in Milwaukee. With Gasol and Bryant back, perhaps the back-to-back won’t hurt as much with the nine, instead of seven, man rotation.