They were due. Completely and utterly due. After the sweep in the second round, the two losses to the new and vastly improved Clippers in the preseason, and the two losses to open this season, the Lakers were in need of a win; and not just any win. They needed a convincing, quarter by quarter, end to end, everybody-in type of win and they certainly went for it tonight.
They didn’t exactly shoot lights out (just 42%), and yes, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led the way for a combined 48 points on 14-28 from the field. The Lakers won tonight because, for the first time since the pre-season opened, they actually looked like a TEAM. There are still some kinks to tweak in the newly refurbished armour, of course (like Troy Murphy being ready for Gasol’s no-look, behind the back passes), but tonight’s effort was quite a leap forward in the retooling process.
It was like 2006 again out there tonight, with Kobe Bryant going at it with Raja Bell. When he wasn’t hitting three pointers over his former adversary, Bryant was blowing by him, flashing a smile in between. Some things never change. Although, Mike Brown did call a timeout in the fourth quarter with the Lakers still up by 21 points. Calling a timeout instead of letting the players remedy the situation before the lead is almost gone? Yes, that’s definitely new.
Stagnant Offense to Start – The first 12 minutes of game time felt more like 12 hours. Neither team could find their offense and it was difficult to guage whether that was due to really great defense, or just terrible decision making with the ball. The Jazz shot just 30% after the first quarter and the Lakers were not much better at 38%. Every player in a gold uniform who hit the floor in that first quarter missed a jump shot and they attempted SEVERAL.
Easy Misses – The upside of every missed shot is a rebound that offers a second chance to score. Tonight the Lakers managed to grab 11 offensive rebounds because they missed so many easy baskets around the rim. In one sequence, Josh McRoberts (6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks) rebounded and attempted to score two or three times in a possession, only for the ball to hit the backboard, hit the rim, hit everything by the bottom of the net.
A Fiery Pau – Pau Gasol may never win Defensive Player of the year accolades, and fans and analysts alike have been frustrated with his lack of defensive intensity; sometimes his lack of defensive awareness at all. Tonight, however, Gasol showed he is more than an offensive force. In addition to helping shoulder the scoring load (22 points on 6-11, 10-12 from the free throw line), he also rather singlehandedly held Utah’s best scorer, Al Jefferson, to 2-16 from the field for his four measly points of the night. Gasol’s arms were up contesting every shot, his hands were active, going after loose balls, knocking them out of opposing hands, etc. All the while scoring consistently and efficiently, grabbing nine rebounds, handing out five assists, snatching two steals and blocking five shots. How’s that for a player the Lakers almost traded?
Defense – Gasol was not the Lakers’ defensive anchor at this game. He was, however, an example of the effort that the team chipped in as a whole. Laker defense did not sleep tonight (except for a handful of slow rotations that led to easy Utah points), even when reserves checked in for starters, the defense rolled on. Jason Kapono, making his debut in the regular season, attached himself to whomever he was assigned. Troy Murphy went scoreless in just over 31 minutes of playing time, and he fouled out, but not after bodying up every player he was matched up against. The Lakers forced Utah into 32% shooting, 1-13 from behind the arc.
Bench Activity – Notice I use the word “activity” and not just production. The Jazz Reserves outscored the Laker bench 41-27 but it was the Laker bench who provided the greatest help to their team. After Lamar Odom’s departure, many (including me – I’m guilty), never gave this current roster of reserves a chance, but in actuality, this season’s bench is much deeper. Steve Blake appears freer in this system than he ever did in the triangle and his part in the rotation is a lot more solid and dependable than Jordan Farmar’s ever was. Blake isn’t just on the floor biding time until Derek Fisher checks in again. He has been entrusted with a lot more responsibility and it showed tonight when a line-up he led in the second quarter gave the Lakers a 10-point lead. Metta World Peace followed his solid game last night with another, putting in 14 points on 5-9, five rebounds, a steal and zero turnovers. Even Troy Murphy, who put in a good 31+ minutes, didn’t need to score to make an impact on the game. His 11 rebounds and four assists were huge. Yes, Lamar Odom was an inspiring player for the reserves to get behind in the last few seasons, but the support he received from the rest of the bench was minimal compared to the collective potential of this season’s reserves.
Turnovers – The Lakers committed only 9 turnovers in tonight’s game and handed out 17 assists on 30 made field goals. After the 17 turnover game against Chicago, single-digit gimmes are the way to go.
We can all breathe a quick sigh of relief after this Lakers’ win. Yes, they played a weakened, perhaps vulnerable Utah Jazz team, but so is any team if the Lakers can commit themselves to this type of defensive effort. There is still a ways to go for this newly formed crew, but with the return of Andrew Bynym in a couple of games, the gang’ll all be here and it will definitely be business as usual.