They seem to slide in and out of contention each week, but you have to hand it to the Lakers – they never say die. Did they lose their 8th seed to the Jazz? Yes (indefinitely). Should they throw in the towel and call it a season? With Kobe Bryant on the team, are you kidding? With nine games left in the regular season, this team doesn’t have a lot of time to waste so they took care of business tonight up in Sacramento with a 103-98 victory.
Kobe Bryant – He played all but 22 seconds of the game, scored 19 points, handed out 14 assists, grabbed nine rebounds, had two steals, committed just a single turnover(!) and, oh yes, he passed Wilt Chamberlain to be the fourth leading scorer in NBA history. To say Bryant was busy would be the understatement of the evening. With Steve Nash only able to play about a minute and a half before checking out for the rest of the night, Bryant knew he had to do the extra heavy lifting and did so accordingly. He shot just 5-18 from the field, with a couple of spectacular you-can-call-me-old-all-you-want-but-I-can-still-dunk-on-you plays, but it was his guidance of the offense that tipped this game in the Lakers’ favor. Sacramento doubled Bryant almost every time he had the ball, and he made them pay by passing to a cutting Pau Gasol for a dunk, handing off to Dwight waiting at the rim and sending passes to guys on the perimeter who hit from downtown. The Lakers had 28 assists tonight and Bryant was responsible for half of those.
Dwight Howard – There’s not much left to say about his 4-10 from the free throw line, but Howard is so much more than that (thank goodness). Continuing his dominance on the floor, Howard showed off with another double-double – 24 points on 10-14 from he field, 15 rebounds, five blocks and a steal. He’s truly working his rear end off and it is paying in dividends. There wasn’t much that DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson could do to make the game hard on Howard. He reached out for rebounds, fought for loose balls and in one sequence, saved the ball from going out of bounds, then quickly sent a no-look pass to Earl Clark for an open dunk and his singular assist of the game.
Pau Gasol – A double-double isn’t a rarity for Gasol, but it usually involves points and rebounds. Tonight he scored 12 points on 6-11, but he also handed out 10 assists. Those who doubted the Gasol-Howard pairing before are probably resting somewhat easy now. The two Laker bigs are doing their jobs. Gasol’s two rebounds? Not a problem when Howard has gobbled up 15 boards. Like Bryant, it was Gasol’s playmaking that made a difference in this game. He is heralded as one of the best-passing big men in the league and for good reason. When he gets the ball inside and the defense collapses, he sees the open shooters. When he sees Howard, he sends over the lob. This is the ideal version of Pau Gasol that opposing teams have difficulty planning for, and hopefully this version remains for as long as he’s in a Laker uniform.
Bench Boys – The Laker reserves outscored the Kings’ bench 32-20, led by the sharp-shooting Steve Blake who went 5-8 from behind the arc for his 15 points. Antawn Jamison, still nursing that tear in his wrist, pitched in 10 points and seven rebounds and Earl Clark put in seven points, four rebounds and a pair of steals of his own.
Second Half – The Lakers allowed the Kings 57 points in the first half on 51% shooting. Sacramento got to the rim fairly easily and they shot 6-12 from three-point range. They even led by as much as 12 in the first 24 minutes. Luckily, the Lakers came out of halftime with more fervor on the defensive end. Sacramento was outscored 29-18 in the third quarter where the Lakers took over the lead, and for the second half, they shot just 39% from the field. The Kings played such a clean first and second quarters, but in the third quarter alone, turned the ball over seven times.
Turnovers – Speaking of turnovers, the Lakers committed just four in the first half and only seven for the game…SEVEN TURNOVERS FOR THE GAME, which led to just six points for the Kings. It’s funny how much they can accomplish when they’re doing something as simple as taking care of the ball.
9th Place – With all the efforts they made after the All-Star break to make it into the final seed, it’s disappointing to be left out of it again. With Utah and Houston both winning tonight, the Lakers still remain cut off from the playoffs at this point. Losing 4-5 before this game didn’t help, but obviously there’s no time to mull over it.
There are two and half weeks left before the end of the regular season, and the playoff hopes continue to hang in the balance. They’re still trying to get by with multiple injuries in the books, but Kobe Bryant summed up what should be the team’s state of mind as well. Asked by he played practically the entire game, he replied, “We’ve got nine games left, I can push through this thing.” They must push through this thing.