(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Home, sweet home.

In their first game back from the Grammy road trip that produced a 3-3 record, the Lakers were more than happy to be dribbling across their team logo again – finally! Welcoming them back to Staples were the Atlanta Hawks, coached by former Laker Larry Drew. Like the Lakers, the Hawks have been sort of a mystery this season, despite their relatively solid 18-10 record. They’ve beaten elite teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers, but they’ve also lost games to teams with losing records, like the Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns. Still, with the likes of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith leading the way, the Hawks are  a team to contend with, and the Lakers did just that tonight – contend with them.

Against this Atlanta team with a benchful of former purple and gold wearers (head coach Drew, assistant coach Nick Van Exel, Jenaro Pargo and Vladimir Radmanovic), the Lakers put in a concerted effort, led by their dominant big men and helped along by a slew of supportive teammates.

Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were monsters again tonight, and the Atlanta Hawks had no one even close to stopping either Laker big. After Zaza Pachulia was failing miserably at checking Bynum, 16-year vet Erick Dampier came in soon after the game began, took over, but still couldn’t do much of anything to compete with the Lakers’ size – as should be the case in every game. Bynum and Gasol, against Pachulia and Josh Smith, were too big, too strong, and too skilled. On a night where Kobe Bryant shot just 5-18 from the field, five Lakers scored in double figures to get the team their 17th win of the season.

Sized Up – Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, more often than not this past season, have shown how valuable they are, not just individually, but as a true frontline tandem. When they have produced in these last 29 games, they have produced results TOGETHER. Tonight they put up another set of double-doubles. Gasol, despite shooting just 9-22, managed to score 20 points (including a corner three), grab 13 rebounds, and block four shots. That he even attempted 22 shots is a small victory in and of itself! The man was playing with some fire out there, putting back Matt Barnes’ missed shot and sending out a little scream, and then holding up his hand after hitting that corner three. After a signature give ‘n go with Kobe Bryant, that resulted in two points for the Spaniard, Gasol slapped hands with Bryant and the two shared a laugh as they jogged back on defense. The difference in Gasol lately has not just been his show of aggressiveness on the court. It’s that he looks like he’s having fun out there again; that he’s playing with a purpose. Combine that with Bynum? It’s a can’t-lose situation.
The new All-Star scored 15 points on an efficient 7-10 from the field, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked two shots. Early in the game, he blocked Pachulia’s shot, ran back down and hit a layup. He worked the offensive glass, and often got his way around the basket because no one in a red uniform could stop him. Bynum showed off a little tonight, spinning around old man Erick Dampier, faking a pass and then scoring on a running hook. It was a sad sight for Dampier but so unbelievably amusing to watch. Bynum may have scored the majority of his points in the first half (13 of the 15), but he wasn’t just a sitting duck in the final two quarters. He continued to rebound, contest shots and stay active on the floor. When Gasol and Bynum play the way the have been the last few games, it’s a wonder why either of them are ever mentioned in trade rumors.
Some Peace – It wasn’t exactly a stat line to shame all stat lines, but Metta World Peace scored 10 points on an efficient 4-7 clip, including 2-5 three pointers. He even dove to receive a pass from Gasol, which he dunked emphatically. World Peace lifted off and actually dunked! That his point total was more than his turnovers or personal fouls was just a lovely sight to behold, considering how terribly he’s played this season.
Bench Pressing – 28 points for the Laker bench compared to the Hawks reserves’ 25 – It wasn’t exactly a “dominating” performance, but it’s all relative. Scoring the lowest number of points in the league isn’t the best spot to be in, but they’re working on it. With Steve Blake back in the rotation, a level of stability should be on the horizon for this group which, when it comes down to it, was a huge factor in the reserves’ production or lack there of. As he had when the season began, Blake received the bulk of the minutes in the point guard position, playing almost 29 ½ minutes to Derek Fisher’s 18 ½. He led the team in assists (6) and managed to contribute a couple of shots himself. Andrew Goudelock, led the bench with 10 points on 4-6, including 2-2 from behind the arc. This rookie is not afraid to take the shot, and it’s no surprise since he’s been shooting with some level of accuracy. With contributions from Matt Barnes (whose mere activity on the floor is his greatest strength on the team) and Troy Murphy, the reserves did their job tonight. The question on whether they can do it for a consecutive set of games, however, remains to be answered.
Paint Points – When the Lakers play to their strong suits, they won’t lose, honestly. There’s a reason why they’re the worst three-point shooting team in the league (though they weren’t so bad tonight getting 8-17 from downtown for 47%) – it’s not their strength! Their trump card is size, a dominating inside presence. Tonight, they put it on full display, outscoring the Atlanta Hawks 44-28 in the paint. When it comes to “easy” scoring, this Laker team will not find it 28 feet from the rim; they’ll find it within that gold box around the hoop.
Pass It On – Ball movement, ball movement, ball movement – it’s not just a requirement for success with the Triangle Offense. It’s a method a team can utilize to give themselves a better probability to score easily and efficiently, and it keeps the defense on their toes. Having the ball in one player’s hands for the majority of the shot clock only reduces the number of opportunities a team has to put the ball in the hole, causing the flow of the offense to stagnate, giving the opposing team a chance to steal and make a run for it. Tonight the Lakers moved the ball well, assisting on 20 of their 37 made field goals.
Defense – 10 points on 4-27 from the field – that was the Hawks’ field goal accomplishments in the third quarter. 15%! They finished the game shooting just 34% from the field. The Lakers may no longer score in bunches, but their defense sure has picked up. Bynum and Gasol, especially, have taken it upon themselves to be aggressors on the defensive end, and their combined commitment has made all the difference. They’re rebounding, blocking and contesting shots – playing like, you know, seven footers. Rebounds no longer just land in someone’s hands, they’re actually fighting for those boards as a team, making sure SOMEONE is going to claim it.

Kobe Bryant – 10 points on 5-18, four rebounds, four assists and five turnovers – It wasn’t one of Bryant’s best games, but he didn’t seem to mind. He hit a few jumpers, scored on an up and under layup, but other than that, Bryant’s teammates took care of the rest and he looked like he enjoyed the show. Teams are collapsing on him a lot quicker, and though he’s only credited for four assists, he created a lot of those shots by sending the pass out of a double team BEFORE the assist to a score. If hockey assists were counted in the NBA, Bryant would no doubt be among the leaders.
Turnovers – Atlanta had 12 steals for the night, resulting in the majority of the Lakers’ 17 turnovers. Turning the ball over seems to be an ongoing theme for the Lakers this season and they’re fortunate the Hawks were only able to convert it to 14 fast break points. It could have been worse. They needs to remedy this as the season goes on, however, because the teams they’re facing this year are getting younger and quicker, and they’re savvy to the fact that these old men Lakers don’t like to run.

The Lakers showed their fans some love on this Valentine’s Day, and get to have the next couple of days off before facing the Phoenix Suns on Friday. With almost half the season played, this team is still an obvious work in progress, and predictably so considering their circumstances. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done on this team and hopefully tonight’s home victory will be the beginning of better, more consistent showings.

Box Score