Their last chance to sweep a back-to-back, a must-win to stay above Utah in the standings, and it had to take place at the cursed Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon.
Challenge: Extended. Challenge: Accepted. Challenge: Completed.
Despite missing three of their key players in Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and J.J. Hickson, the Trailblazers do have some sharpshooting young guys led by rookie phenom, Damian Lillard. As a team, Portland hit 12-26 three pointers and went off running every chance that the Lakers gave them.
Fast, young teams who can shoot from the perimeter AND get to the paint is nothing new for the Lakers. It’s been like this all season, and if you asked Kobe Bryant, he would probably say that he liked it this way. The more challenging the situation or opponent, the more determined and ruthless he becomes, and lately, he’s been able to take his teammates with him. Tonight’s win, as has been the case for the last few weeks’ worth of games, was an important one, and despite allowing the home team to go off in the first half, the Lakers recovered defensively and maintained their offensive efficiency in the second half, leading to their 113-106 win.
MambaVino – Let’s get the incredible stats over with: 47 points on 14-27 from the field (beating the old record for most points at the Rose Garden from Lebron James’ 44), a perfect 18-18 from the free throw line, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, four blocks and one turnover in 48 minutes of playing time. Yes – this time he played the game from tip-off to the final buzzer, looking and moving like a spring chicken from beginning to end. He and Pau Gasol looked like they shared the same brain, with Bryant’s four of five assists aimed at and converted by Gasol himself. It’s been phenomenal to watch his excellence shine during a time when his team is nothing less than desperate, and it’s also worrisome, awaiting the day when he has nothing left with which to play. But each time that ounce of doubt arises, there is always that reminder to #countonkobe.
SpanishSwan – Whether it’s his healthy recovery, Mike D’Antoni opening his coaching mind to Gasol’s game or Bryant encouraging his co-captain to park himself in the post – it’s got the big Spaniard looking like his old self and the Lakers are more than better for it. In his last four games, Gasol is averaging 19 ppg, 10 rpg and 6 apg. Tonight he put in 23 points, seven rebounds, nine assists and two blocks. Gasol was channeling Steve Nash out there, receiving passes and, in a split second, sending lobs to Dwight Howard or passing to shooters for the threeball. He’s as efficient a passer as he is a scorer, and if he can keep this up from here on out, the Lakers will make the playoffs AND probably ruffle some feathers (see: swan reference).
Steve Blake – A former Blazer himself, Portland has always had a special place in Steve Blake’s heart…but not when he’s in his Laker uniform. He didn’t put up a standout stat line at first glance, but the Lakers may not have gotten their chance to win this game had it not been for Blake’s forever feisty nature. With just over a minute left in the game, and the Lakers holding onto a four-point lead, Blake fought for the offensive board that resulted in Gasol’s lob to Howard, which gave the Lakers a six-point advantage. He finished with eight points on 3-4 from the field, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Dwight Howard – 20 points on 9-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, three blocks and an assist – after a series of single digit rebound games, Howard went back to his dominating self. There is no one in Portland with the size and power to overtake him, and he made them pay for it tonight, living in the paint on both ends (Blazers went 16-35 from inside for the 32 points, but were outscored by the Lakers, who put in 54 points in there).
Free Throws – The Lakers went 21-24 from the charity stripe, led by Bryant’s perfect 18-18.
Second-Half Defense – As bad as their defense was in the first half, their defense in the second half was exceptional. After giving up 69 points on on 61% shooting to Portland, the Lakers closed in and allowed the Blazers just 37 points on 29% from the field in the final two quarters. Sending extra defenders Damian Lillard’s way was a key component. He went off for 25 points in the first half on 9-14 and handed out seven assists. In the final two quarters, he scored just 13 points on 3-11 and only collected a pair of dimes.
Too Many Minutes – 48 minutes for Bryant, 39 minutes for Gasol, 38 minutes for Dwight Howard and Steve Blake. With so many injuries, yes, it’s difficult not to play so many minutes for the primary rotation, but the coaching staff needs to utilize other players just enough to give the starters a breather…or two.
First-Half Defense – See last high point.
Right around halftime, I read a tweet from Russell Simmons that said, “Embrace struggle. It is your greatest teacher.”
For every rock that has been heaved all season at the Lakers’ glass house, came a lesson set on every stone. Injuries that took players out, empowered other players to take on more responsibility. Having been eight games below .500, and far from playoff eligibility forced humility on this team who was expected to run every other team over. Fighting for the very last seed in the Western Conference has inspired this group of veterans to tune out all the naysayers who refer to them, daily, as old and incapable of competing with the young bucks in the league.
Yes, this season has been more than a struggle for this Laker team, but in this struggle they are learning more about themselves, each other and what it takes to be winners in a league that has all but counted them out.