Under the category of most important wins so far for the purple and gold, tonight would rank numero uno. Sure the Lakers romped their hometown rivals in the first game of the regular season, but that seems a novelty because no one expected it and they haven’t been able to duplicate the effort since then.
No, tonight’s victory meant much more. It was their first road win, and it came against former teammate, Dwight Howard.
After a rough loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers came into today’s game looking much more focused and energetic, getting off to a big 36-19 lead after one quarter, and rattling off 64 points for the first half. And it wasn’t just their offense, especially from behind the arc, that was accomplishing this feat. It was their defense (yes, the Lakers can, indeed, play defense), that forced the Rockets to shoot just 35% from the field in those first two quarters.
The same effort and energy, however, did not make it into the second half, where the Rockets forced the Lakers to make mistake after mistake, thereby aiding in their takeover late in the fourth quarter. Houston got over the hump and took a 97-91 lead with just 2:24 left in the game…and then the Hack-A-Howard started. Fortunately for the Lakers, not much has changed in Howard’s free throw repertoire. He made the first two and then missed the next five. Jodie Meeks hit a three pointer to get to within two points and Steve Blake iced the win with a three of his own, getting his team the 99-98 victory.
First Half Effort – 50% from the field, 11-14 from downtown, rebounding advantage, assist advantage – the Lakers couldn’t be stopped in the first two quarters, led by their guards. Steve Nash, Steve Blake and off the bench, Jodie Meeks, had 30 of the Lakers’ 64 first-half points. James Harden had 20 points by then, but no one else in a Rockets uniform came close to being second. On the defensive end, Houston was 15-43 from the field, and if not for their 27-6 lead in free throw attempts, the Rockets may have been down by much more.
Bench – After scoring 72 points in the loss to Dallas, the Laker bench poured in 54 points tonight, once again proving how vital they are to the success of this team. Leading the reserves was Jodie Meeks, who finished with 18 points on 6-9 from the field, 5-7 from three. Wes Johnson chipped in 16 points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal, including a three pointer at the buzzer to end the first quarter. Jordan Farmar, charged with running the floor, scored 11 points, but moreover handed out seven assists to lead the game. They have been the difference this season. Last year, the Lakers could barely rely on two, let alone three, bench players. This season, they can go 10-deep, easily.
Steve Blake – He’s so unassuming, commands such little attention, yet Kobe Bryant has always said that he loves Blake’s feistiness. His slight build and mild manners are a façade, because put Blake in a pressure situation, and he can make you pay. He had 14 points on 5-10 from the field, 4-6 from behind the arc. With just 3.4 seconds left in the game, Blake ran off the screen that Nash provided, received the inbounds pass from Meeks, stepped behind the three-point line, and threw up the last shot, winner of the game.
Second Non-Effort – After such a solid first half from both ends of the court, the Lakers walked into the third quarter looking like they’d just woken up from a nap. They shot just 12-44 from the field for 27%, and after the hot shooting from downtown in the first two quarters, they went just 5-21 from behind the arc. Their 12 turnovers turned into 14 points for the Rockets and they gave up their lead completely and fell behind by six points with just over two minutes left in the game. If not for Howard’s missed free throws, Houston might’ve taken this win.
Pau Gasol – Where has the Lakers’ co-captain been? Is he still recovering from injury? Is he just bored, because aside from his 12 rebounds, Gasol didn’t do much else. He was just 1-10 from the field and attempted zero free throws. ZERO. It’s what happens when he settles for jump shots so far away from the area from which he has had career-long success. His behavior is more than peculiar. He talks a good game about effort and making the right play after a loss, but does so very little to change it. James Harden scored 35 points. He shot just 9-24 from the field, but he grabbed nine rebounds, handed out five assists and made 14-16 free throws. That’s what leaders do –they put the team on their backs. Since the regular season began, the only thing Gasol has done is look like he’d rather be doing something else.
They can never just build a lead and sustain it, can they? The Lakers are victims of big leads, regardless of whether the advantage belongs to them or their opponent. In both the game against San Antonio and tonight against Houston, the Lakers created 15-point and 19-point leads respectively, but quicker than you can say, “seven seconds or less,” the lead had turned into a deficit. In the other extreme, when the opposing team got going at the onset, like the Warriors and Mavericks, a five-point lead turned into 10, which turned into 20 and eventually 30, leaving the Lakers unable to recover.
There is still much for the Lakers to work on, but at least tonight they showed themselves that they can win on the road, and in a close game, so here they are at .500.