Well, of course Kobe Bryant played tonight. Of course he passed every test to assure his condition post-concussion was game ready. Of course he wore the mask when he was on the floor. And of course he scored 31 points and the Lakers won. Was there any doubt as to the outcome of this game, really?
The Minnesota Timberwolves may have defeated the Clippers on their first game of this Staples Center back-to-back, but the Lakers have beaten them 16 times in a row going into tonight’s contest, and now that streak is up to 17. Playing without the services of All-Star Weekend’s Three-point Shootout champion, Kevin Love, the Wolves were 24 points and 14 rebounds short, which is a notable deficiency against the Lakers’ and their home court dominance.
And they were dominant…because they were aggressive and because they played intelligently. In any competition, that’s truly the only way to go if you want to, you know, win. After going through the first half of the season trying to figure themselves out when they hit the hardwood, the Lakers need to take note of what they did well in these types of victories.
Tonight, their ball movement was purposeful and plentiful, which made their offense simple and fruitful. Their defense was active and suffocating. Their energy, most of all, was there from tip-off to the final buzzer. To rack up more wins, rinse and repeat.
Pass-Happy – 30 assists on 41 made field goals and only 13 turnovers. The Lakers just couldn’t help themselves – there was an opportunity for a good shot everywhere they looked. Whether it was Kobe Bryant sending it down to Metta World Peace under the basket for a layup, or Metta World Peace passing up a three to hit Pau standing unguarded at the hoop for a hoop, or even Steve Blake tossing up a lob to Andrew Bynum for a monster dunk – the Lakers seemed to be actively looking for the best opportunity possible for a basket and it paid off. They shot 54% in the first half, assisting on 17 of their 22 made field goals. Bryant led the team with eight dimes.
The Paint – The Lakers outscored the Timberwolves 54-40 in the paint. When it comes to scoring in that area, it’s all about aggression. Bryant missed a jumper and Pau Gasol was there to stuff it back with a vengeance via a one-handed dunk. Bryant intercepted a pass and ran ahead to get a dunk of his own. Matt Barnes, ever the mover, cut to the hoop just in time to receive a pass from Troy Murphy to score on a layup. Even Derek Fisher, who does the majority of his scoring from about 16 feet and further, ran into the box to receive a bounce pass from Bryant and score on a pretty finger roll. This team’s strength takes place in that painted area around the basket, and the more assertive they are in getting in there, the easier it will be for them to score.
Masked Mamba – fractured nose, concussion – whatever! After undergoing a series of tests required by the league for players who have experienced concussions, Bryant passed each one and was cleared to play at what seemed like the last minute, and the Lakers would have it no other way. 31 points on 11-23 – including a steal and fast break dunk – seven rebounds and eight assists – broken nose, neck pain and all, Mamba was Mamba, and with a hero-like face mask for some added character, no less. Asked about Dwyane Wade in his post-game conference, Bryant defended his Olympic teammate, attesting that Wade is not the type of person who would have intentionally harmed him, reiterating that such things happen and that he remained positive last night, hoping he wouldn’t experience headaches today, which he didn’t.
Metta World Peace – Eight points on 3-5, five assists, a block and zero turnovers – With the way MWP has played this season, this stat line is completely acceptable, if not welcome. And in the end, it wasn’t his box score that stood out, it was his decision-making. He attempted just one shot from behind the arc, which he missed. He passed up a chance for another three-pointer when he noticed Gasol standing under the hoop by himself. He threw a lob to Andrew Bynum for a dunk and another to Bryant for a jumper. He moved the ball, rather than holding on to it and doing nothing as the shot clock ran, which he is notorious for doing. He didn’t try to do too much, which produced a lot more.
Dynamic Duo – Speaking of superheroes, how about them seven-footers? In his 22nd double-double of the season in 30 games with 13 points on 6-9, 13 rebounds, and three blocks, Andrew Bynum was, again, no match for Wolves’ Nikola Pekovic and Darko Milicic, not to mention an even more challenging match for Anthony Randolph. Crowded in the paint early in the game, Bynum’s fancy footwork earned him a reverse dunk. In one sequence, he did a quick dribble around Milicic for a hoop that had the entire Laker bench on their feet. No doubt that quick step to a dunk was inspired by teammate Kobe Bryant, who Bynum walked towards after that hoop, and who was received with a proud embrace by Captain Footwork himself. Defensively, the Wolves couldn’t contend with Bynum. Randolph was just as easily bounced off Bynum’s body and Pekovic was forced into a travel by the 7-footer. Simply put, they couldn’t go around or through him to get a hoop, and couldn’t stop or slow him down to prevent him from scoring.
Pau Gasol, after a slow start in the first half with just four points on 2-4, scored 15 for the night on 6-10, 3-3 from the charity stripe, five boards, four assists, and three blocks. Whether his stats seem headed downward, Gasol remains a consistent staple for success on this team. Collaborating with Bynum and Bryant, the Lakers have just as dominant of a Big Three as any.
Bench – 30 points to the Minnesota Bench’s 49 seems quite the discrepancy, but with a Big Three as dominant as the Lakers’, their bench isn’t required to contribute the greater bulk of the scoring. More than anything, the reserves contribute other valuables to the team’s success – rebounding (18, led by Matt Barnes’ eight), moving the offense (Steve Blake had five assists), and either maintaining momentum or changing it for the better when it’s needed.
Defense – The Lakers held the Timberwolves to 85 points on 39% shooting and in the third quarter, where they pulled away, only allowed a 25% field goal percentage. They also had eight blocks (six belonging to Bynum and Gasol).
Starters coming back in late in the game – With a 27-point lead in the fourth quarter and 9:20 minutes left, Mike Brown went to the bench and Bynum to put the icing on, but when the lead drifted down to 19 points, Bryant, Gasol and World Peace entered the game again. It wasn’t until the three-minute mark that Brown felt comfortable enough to put the starters back on the bench and the reserves back on the court. It would have been ideal for the starters to have rested in the final 12 minutes, but with just 32 games left in the season, Brown wasn’t taking any chances.
With the win tonight, and a series of losses in the Western Conference, the Lakers have taken over the fourth spot, with the Dallas Mavericks falling to fifth. Every game this season counted, but now, more than ever, each win or loss could mean a rise or fall in seeding. So far the Lakers are off to a positive start.