On this Noche Latina (which should technically be Dia Latina since it was an afternoon game, but I digress), how else to describe the Lakers’ play but to say, muy bien. Yes, this is an injury-ridden Chicago Bulls team, but so are the Lakers. And despite missing some of their key players, Chicago is still a 5th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The last time these two teams met in the windy city, the Lakers were a bunch of players who were still trying to figure themselves out. Today, with a chance to get to the 8th seed in the Western Conference, they broke habit and led for a great part of the game rather than falling behind like they have been in their last two contests. They didn’t shoot lights out, but stayed the course by not letting poor shooting determine their fate. Behind Dwight Howard’s inspired work on the defensive end and a balanced effort all around, the Lakers pulled out a 90-81 victory.
Dwight Howard – With less than 24 seconds left in the game and the Lakers holding a nine-point lead, Dwight Howard blocked Nate Robinson’s attempt to score and then stole the ball from Joakim Noah as the clock ran down towards another win. The game was more than decided at that point, but Howard was on a roll. Why not play defense until he no longer had to today? This attitude was appreciated even more by Kobe Bryant, to whom Howard approached after the game to receive a congratulatory bear hug. Any questions about the center’s commitment to the team had been silenced since the All-Star break, as did any concern regarding his relationship with Bryant. Today, Howard put in 16 points on 8-14 from the field, 21 rebounds, four blocks and a steal. Minus the 0-5 from the free throw line, he had as dominating of a game as he has had all season and it’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ play of late has improved since Howard’s game has improved.
Defense – The Lakers weren’t exactly smoking hot from the floor in the first half. They barely shot 42% from the field, and it’s easy for this team to get down when their offense isn’t clicking. However, they didn’t let this one aspect of their game affect their play. Instead, they placed their efforts on the other side of the court, defending Chicago into a bad shooting game. The Bulls’ best FG% of the day was 45.8% in the second quarter, but they didn’t shoot over 40% in any of the other three quarters. They shot just 33% in the first, 29% in the third and 39% in the fourth. They were outrebounded 43-31 through three quarters. Metta World Peace was on Carlos Boozer watch, allowing the Bulls forward just a 12 point, 4-16 from the field kind of game. Aside from the defensive efforts of MWP and Howard, however, the Lakers as a team were rotating and helping regularly, sealing passing lanes and guarding the paint.
Balance – Six players scored in double figures, led by Bryant’s 19 points. Bryant also led the game in assists with nine dimes. Steve Nash scored 10 of his 16 points in the third quarter; letting the Chicago defense have it by hitting running jumpers, fadeaways and even a three. MWP, who has been struggling with his shot as of late, chipped in 12 points of his own, adding in seven rebounds a steal and tied Howard with four blocks. Jodie Meeks came off the bench and chipped in 10 points.
Ball Care – The Lakers turned the ball over nine times in the first half, but only turned it over four times in the second half. By taking better care of the ball, they gave themselves more of a chance to take and then maintain the advantage until the final buzzer.
Threeball – We know the Lakers aren’t going to hit 16 three pointers in every game, but to go 5-26 from downtown is disappointing. They were getting the looks, but just weren’t knocking them down. MWP was 0-6. Earl Clark and Bryant were a combined 2-9 and even Jodie Meeks went just 2-7. Thankfully, the Bulls didn’t make them suffer as they went just 4-16 from behind the arc themselves.
Antawn Jamison – Jamison had an 8-game streak in which he scored double-digits in every game. Lately, however, he has been unable to get that same consistency going. He scored just six points today on 3-7 from the field.
It’s hard to imagine that the Lakers were ever eight games under .500, struggling to figure out how to win, and now they’ve reached the 8th seed in the Western Conference. It’s a spot which will continue to be challenged until the regular season is over. Utah, Golden State and Houston are all jockeying for the same seeds and all the Lakers can do is keep winning to keep themselves in playoff position. They can’t do anything about how these three teams perform, but they can certainly continue to concern themselves with how they play. The 8th seed is not locked up yet, but for now, we’re just happy they’ve had the will and tenacity to get there.