They had once led by nine points, and then they fell behind by nine points. Such is life for the Los Angeles Lakers. After dropping the last two games against teams who are either trying to maintain their playoff position or vying for a place in the Western Conference top eight at all, the Lakers had their third meeting with a team who doesn’t have much to fight for, but who fights hard anyway. The New Orleans Hornets have had a tough year – first they lost Chris Paul, which coincided with a failed trade with the Lakers (or perhaps dodging the bullet that is Lamar Odom was a blessing in disguise); they’re still under the management of the league, and at this point in the season, they’re down three of their best players in Eric Gordon, Emeka Okafor and, most recently, Jarrett Jack.
In the two teams’ first meeting, the Lakers came back up from being down 17 points to win in overtime. In their second game, it took a Kobe Bryant clutch three to win at home. Tonight, for the second game in a row, there was no Kobe Bryant, but fortunately for the Lakers, rather up-and-down as their season has been, they’re still equipped with some fine players beyond the Mamba.
Standing in for Bryant in the starting line-up was, again, Devin Ebanks. He scored just half as much as he did subbing in for the Phoenix game, but his efforts early in the first quarter did not go unnoticed. With Pau Gasol’s deflection on a pass, the ball went loose and Ebanks dove for it right through Greivis Vasquez’s legs, and immediately called timeout. That was just a sign of how this game was going to be won, and that would be through the dirty work of everyone in a purple uniform. This would not be a blowout, by either team, though the Hornets’ hot shooting behind the arc begged to differ.
For the third game in a row, the Lakers failed miserably to close in on opposing shooters and they paid for it. Marco Bellinelli hit 4-7 and Vasquez converted 5-6! But instead of responding to what seemed like a barrage of threes by jacking up their own from downtown, the Lakers stuck to their game – inside then out, with a dash of defense, and it worked. Go figure!
“We had no other choice but to get stops,” Gasol told Mike Trudell in his post-game interview. When pressed against the wall, the Lakers can play defense and tonight, they were pinned to one.
After getting outscored 12-4 to close the first half, the Lakers outscored New Orleans 28-19 in the final quarter to take the W.
Pau Gasol – Muy bueno, el Capitan! With his fellow co-captain sitting on the bench in a suit, Gasol led the team the best way he knows how – through his play. He was as aggressive offensively as we’ve seen him this season; choosing to score rather than pass unless it was the better play, pulling out every weapon he’s got, from running hooks to face-up jumpers, long jumpers to one-handed floaters off the backboard; heck he even dunked a couple of times. He finished with 25 points on 10-21 from the field, nine rebounds, four assists, a steal and two blocks; including the block late in the fourth quarter of Chris Kaman’s attempt to take back their lead. That was the block that eventually led to Metta World Peace’s three, giving the Lakers a lead which they never relinquished.
Andrew Bynum – He was a slow-cooker out there, scoring just seven points on 2-7 from the field in the first half. He appeared frustrated at times but picked it right back up in the second half. He scored on a shot-block buzzer-beating hoop over Kaman and then, in crunch time, blocked a key possession that aided in the Lakers’ attempt to close the deficit. He finished with 18 points 7-17, 11 rebounds, an assist and a block.
Ramon Sessions – Nevemind the ice pack that rested on his shoulders on the bench between playing times. The soreness of the sprained left shoulder didn’t stop him. With 3.2 sec left on the shot clock, and just 28.5 seconds left in the game, MWP sent the inbounds pass to Sessions, who caught it and then calmly rose up from behind the arc – SWISH. He smiled a familiar smile after giving his team a six-point lead. Where had we seen that grin before? That smirk, after hitting a clutch three-pointer? And then it came to mind – that was the smile of former team co-captain, Derek Fisher after converting on another one of his famous three pointers in a close game. After scoring that basket, Sessions just turned around and smiled at his team and coaches on the bench; that smile, it was more than just a show of relief. With Fisher in OKC and Bryant sitting out with an injury, Sessions showed today that he is just more than his playmaking and scoring abilities. The young point guard proved to his team that he’s not afraid of big moments, that he knows he’s basically replacing someone who they relied on to come through on nights like tonight; he showed that that if they needed him in tough situations, he, too, could handle it. 17 points on 5-9 and a perfect 6-6 from the charity stripe, six rebounds, six assists and a steal in tonight’s game? Kobe approves.
Steve Blake – Since Sessions’ arrival, the new target for ridicule these days has been Steve Blake. For all the praise Blake received for being the better alternative to Fisher, the younger, quicker Sessions has become an even greater option, which has left Blake in a tough situation. Being the consummate professional and team guy, however, Blake has come to work well WITH Sessions. Often coming in to replace Bryant, Blake and Sessions have become a good pair of ball-handlers to have on the floor at the same time. Blake still doesn’t score in bunches, but he’s not as completely useless as many fans have made him out to be. Tonight he chipped in eight points on 3-6 from the field, including a three pointer late in the fourth to pull the Lakers within four points, he handed out four assists, drew two charges (something Fisher did often as well), hustling to save a ball from going out of bounds and, in mid-air, sent a sharp pass directly to Ramon Sessions who set up Matt Barnes for a score, and didn’t commit a single turnover all night.
Coach Kobe – You can take Kobe Bryant out of his uniform, but you can’t take him out of a game…theoretically anyway. He sat on the bench in his suit, wearing a walking boot on his left leg. All that was missing was a clipboard in one hand and marker on the other. Rather than sitting back to watch his team fail to secure another victory without him, Bryant sat next to the coaches on the bench and spoke to his teammates during quarter breaks and participated in timeout huddles (you see that, Andrew Bynum? Even when Kobe’s not active to play he’s listening in on the huddle). He greeted his sub, Devin Ebanks, as he made his way to the bench after subbing out. He spoke in length to Bynum before the start of the third quarter, gesturing towards the court with his hands. With 3.2 seconds left on the shot clock, right before the possession when Ramon Sessions hit a three pointer to give them a six-point lead, Bryant spoke to Pau Gasol, again gesturing towards various parts of the court, his co-captain nodding in understanding. As Gasol shot free throws, Bryant stood right behind Coach Mike Brown, sharing his thoughts and later, some laughs. That’s what leaders do – even when they can’t physically lead their team, they remain engaged and find other ways to contribute.
Another lost lead – After starting out being down 7-2, the Lakers surged in the third quarter to take a 40-31 lead. But in the final 3:37 minutes of the first half, they were outscored 12-4 and lost the lead momentarily until Gasol hit a shot at the buzzer signaling the end of the second quarter. They couldn’t put the ball in the hole in those final minutes of the half, and after 24 minutes of play, the Lakers had turned over the ball nine times to the Hornets’ five.
3-point defense – As far as we can tell, especially in these last few games, the Lakers’ system of defense against the three is to just leave opponents wide open, or leave shooters to help defend, and then failing to recover back to their man. Against the Rockets last Friday, the Lakers gave up 10 three pointers, 14 on Saturday to Phoenix and tonight, gave up 9-15 from downtown to the Hornets. New Orleans shot 60% from behind the arc tonight, even managing to hit a three late in the game after the Lakers had built what seemed like a solid six-point lead.
Last play? – Gasol tried to explain it, as did Mike Brown, Ramon Sessions and Metta World Peace. Still, no one seems to understand what that last play was supposed to accomplish. With just over a second left in the game, and World Peace getting ready to inbound the ball, Jason Smith teetered from half court, towards their basket where Matt Barnes was waiting. MWP inbounded towards Barnes, and Barnes luckily beat Smith to the ball and saving the win. So much could have gone wrong with that kooky play, but for now, let’s just be glad the Lakers still won.
Grind, they had to and grind they did, despite lost leads, having to climb their way up from a deficit, fighting to get baskets and fighting to get stops – the Lakers couldn’t afford to give up on themselves and they didn’t. If the most help they could get from Kobe Bryant was some sound advice from the bench, they took it and can now go into San Antonio after a hard-fought victory.