“Note to self,” Andrew Bynum told Lisa Salters after the game, “the more I play D, the better we’ll be.” And if today’s effort is any indication of what the young center is planning for the post-season, the doubters may want to temper their predictions of the Lakers’ demise.
Kobe Bryant mentioned last week that their game is built for the playoffs; that slow to moderate half court game that goes against all the glory given to teams who live on the sprint to score for 48 minutes. The Lakers’ success lies in the offense that keeps teams guessing – who should be covered? Who should be doubled? Who can be left open? Despite missing an integral part of their team in Metta World Peace, serving his second of a seven-game suspension, the team adjusted, each Laker played their part to pull out the win by constantly keeping the Denver Nuggets on their heels on both sides of the court.
It wasn’t the smoothest start this Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. After six minutes of the first quarter, the two teams had combined for just 14 points. It wasn’t until the second half of the first when the Lakers’ offense suddenly awoke, thanks in large part to Steve Blake’s back-to-back-to-back shots from downtown. Denver kept close tabs on the Lakers’ big three, with Bynum not attempting a single field goal in that quarter and Pau Gasol and Bryant combining for just eight points on 2-6. The defense, however, kept the double-digit advantage going into the second.
The offensive-minded team that they are, Denver wasn’t discouraged and rattled off a 13-4 run to open the following quarter to close the gap to just four points, but Devin Ebanks’ eight points led the way for a 10-point advantage to end the first half. Bryant struggled, going just 2-10 from the field, but the Laker defense, led by Bynum, paved the way for a successful second half.
The next two quarters only produced a five-point advantage for the Lakers, but Denver got to the free throw line twice as often as the home team, which helped them keep it competitive, until the Laker lead ballooned to 21 points.
Kobe Bryant’s offensive struggles in the first half were behind him, and the Lakers’ defense just intensified as the game continued. The Nuggets, for all their offensive success in the regular season, couldn’t get past the suffocating Laker D and their efforts on Bryant were rendered ineffective as soon as he figured out (which he usually does) how to score and help the team get a 1-0 series lead.
Laker Defense – It wasn’t just Andrew Bynum’s 10 blocks that hindered the Nuggets’ offense. It was his efforts in the simple task of contesting shots. If there were a stat today on how many shots he altered, they’d probably outnumber the actual blocks for which he got credit. Add that to Matt Barnes’ activity, despite the sprained ankle. He didn’t score much (just 1-6 for two points), but he led the game with four steals, using those active gangly arms to bother every navy blue uniform who tried to score or pass. He also grabbed six rebounds and managed to steal a block. for the second quarter where they allowed the Nuggets to shoot 47%, the Lakers kept Denver to under 40% shooting in the other three quarters. The number one offense in the regular season, the Nuggets averaged over 104 ppg on 39% shooting. Today they were held to just 88 points and 36% from the field, and the fastbreak points, which the Nuggets thrive on, were held to a minimum due to the Lakers hustling back on defense and keeping their turnovers to a minimum. Denver also topped in the league in assists, averaging 24.0 ppg. With leading scorer and point person, Ty Lawson struggling to get anything going, the Nuggets handed out just 17 assists, Lawson scored just seven points on 3-11, and he had just two dimes in almost 31 minutes of playing time. It was a grand defensive effort all around from the home team!
Laker Offense – Some say great defense leads to great offense and the Lakers surely took care of that theory. Every starter scored in double figures, in addition to reserve Jordan Hill, who had 10 points of his own. The Lakers kept Denver from running, and in effect, played the game with a more favorable pace. Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake did a good job of maintaining the tempo, which made for a relatively clean game. The Lakers committed just 11 turnovers, which was a testament to their good ball movement. They had 22 assists led by Gasol’s eight. Gasol, along with Bryant, Sessions and Blake, were great visionaries on the court, and that helped earn their teammates a lot of easy hoops. The Lakers also kept to their inside game, outscoring the Nuggets in the paint, 64-44.
Andrew Bynum – It was the first triple-double in a playoff game for the Lakers since Magic Johnson way back in 1991. A concern for Bynum has always been that when he’s frustrated on the offensive end, he disengages on the defensive side. Today, Denver flanked him with defenders, but he didn’t allow a slow-scoring start to affect the rest of his game. Coach Mike Brown, who kissed his young center on the forehead after the game, inciting a chuckle from the seven-footer, said Bynum could control the game without shooting a single shot. Kobe Bryant admires the way Bynum’s whole game is evolving. But Pau Gasol said it best when asked about his frontcourt teammate’s impact on the game: “He has to understand how important and effective he can be on the defensive end for us, rebounding and blocking shots, and that’s, a lot of the time, more important than what goes on on the other end.” With his 10 points on 5-7 and 13 rebounds, Bynum’s 10 blocks were not just impressive because of how it helped the Lakers win. Those 10 rejections also tied the NBA playoff record, surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the franchise record in blocks for a game and helped the team break the franchise record in blocks for a game with 15. Asked about his defensive efforts, Bynum said simply that he didn’t want to let his teammates down. Hopefully that’s the sentiment for the remainder of these playoffs.
Kobe Bryant – 2-10 in the first half – as if that would discourage the Mamba. If there’s one emotion that Bryant is foreign to, it’s discouragement. Denver double-teamed him, and Arron Afflalo stuck to him like he always has, but Bryant found a way in the second half to do his damage. He had just eight points in the first two quarters, then went off for 23 more on 9-14 in the final two. Those seven games he sat on the bench in the latter part of the regular season seem like best thing to have happened. Not only did it give him a significant amount of healing time for his injuries (let’s face it, that left shin is just one of many ailments in the 16-year veteran), it invigorated his teammates to up their game without him on the floor; sort of forcing the game into them from the bench. “The best way to force a game upon them,” Bryant said after the game, “is to not play.” With a +26 to lead the game, it’s best not to underestimate the KobeSystem. You’re welcome.
Pau Gasol – Constantly overshadowed by either Bynum’s dominance/immaturity or Bryant’s greatness/petulance, Gasol rarely gets the credit he deserves for putting this team in the position it’s in. He, too, is a force that opposing teams attempt to shut down, and today was no different. But instead of checking out, Gasol powered through, scoring 13 points, grabbing eight rebounds, blocking two shots and handing out eight assists. Eight assists for a seven-footer. He’s the second leading assist man among power forwards in the league, averaging just under four assists per game, and based on the passes he sent to teammates today, there’s really no wonder why opposing teams want to eliminate him from the game. It’s not just about his scoring, for Gasol, it’s about helping his teammates as well. If it’s not that lob to Bynum, it’s an overhead pass to Jordan Hill (which didn’t lead to a field goal, but led to some free throws), or a bouncepass to Devin Ebanks who scored on a wide open dunk, or a hand off to Bryant for a reverse layup. When it comes to scoring for himself, however, Gasol is no slouch. He whizzed by rookie Kenneth Faried and drove to the hoop for an uncontested dunk and received a pass from Ramon Sessions in the corner for a three.
Teamwork – There are a lot of individual accolades to hand out in today’s game, but above all was the Lakers’ collective effort. Being a man down (especially a starter who plays significant minutes and contributes regularly), they not only managed to make do with what they have, but they did so seamlessly. Devin Ebanks chipped in 12 points and five rebounds, filling in admirably for Metta World Peace. The Laker reserves were a great help, with Jordan Hill, subbing in for Bynum or Gasol, putting in a double-double (10 and 10), Blake hitting those three pointers and handing out four assists, and as mentioned before, Matt Barnes’ activity despite the bum ankle.
Despite the allowing Denver to go on a couple of runs, the Lakers played an excellent game overall so there isn’t much to complain about.
In the game of basketball, size matters, and in a battle between the Lakers and the Nuggets, length wins over speed. Today the Lakers showed why they are the championship caliber team that their captain claims they are. Despite being constantly being overlooked this season as a contender, they’re still a team who’s aware of their strengths. Next up, Denver’s counter move.