Kobe Bryant looked over his shoulder, his left hand dribbling and his right hand pointing and seemingly directing. Pau Gasol took notice, took the direction and caught a pass from Bryant as he cut to the basket. Score! As they ran back on defense, Bryant pointed his right index and middle fingers at his eyes, mouthing something we can’t hear but shouting volumes in the process. Look to me. I’ll guide you. And that is what he did.
After losing in Portland last night (yet again), the Lakers had a meeting with the offensive-minded Golden State Warriors with new head coach, Mark Jackson. Despite playing without their young talent, Stephen Curry, Golden State still had scoring machine, Monta Ellis. Despite a sluggish and pathetic effort from the Lakers in the first half, Kobe Bryant led a surge in the third that the team managed to hang on to until the end.
Kobe Bryant – With 5.4 seconds left in the third quarter, and the Lakers leading by six, Steve Blake inbounded to Bryant. One dribble. Crossover. Lift-off – three and buzzer. The Laker lead was now up to nine going into the fourth. It’s almost like he times it, these moments that take your breath away or stop your heart. One game he’s going 6-28 and has you worried about the seriousness of that wrist injury. The next game, he’s scoring 39 points on a respectable 13-28 and handing out seven assists in the process. After scoring 13 points in the first half, Bryant exploded for 17 in the third quarter alone. In one sequence, he flew out of bounds into the Laker bench trying to save a ball, then hopped back out to defend and then run a break with Matt Barnes that ended with a hoop. It wasn’t just Bryant’s scoring that saved this game for the Lakers though. He was all kinds of encouragement on the floor, sending out reminders to some of his teammates through something as simple as creating a play for them. He sent a pass to an open Steve Blake who drained a three towards the end of the third and gave the Lakers a six-point lead. He passed to a wide-open Pau Gasol who nailed a 16-foot jumper, and then embraced him emphatically after. Then sensing the frustration of a long night for Andrew Bynum, Bryant sent an alleyoop in traffic to young man for a dunk. Is he in pain? Most definitely, often having his wrist massaged when he’s sitting on the bench. But when he has games like today, it’s really hard to tell isn’t it?
Matt Barnes – There was one Laker who appeared to be awake for the greater part of the game, and he used to be a Warrior himself. Barnes has been the starting small forward the last few games, and his play tonight may solidify this position if he can duplicate any of its production. 16 points on 7-9, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and all spark, all energy. He scored, getting most of his points by merely being attentive to his teammates, reading the floor and cutting for open layups and dunks. And moreover, he was charged with the challenging assignment of defending Monta Ellis, a job usually taken on by Bryant. Bets on how low his field goal percentage would have dipped if he had to chase Ellis around and score and make plays. But Barnes did a respectable job, holding Ellis to 18 points on 8-20 shooting.
Pau Gasol – The thing about having Andrew Bynum on the floor? No one seems to notice Pau Gasol, which seems to be just fine with him. It’s really still amazing how open and often he’s left alone from 16-18 feet from the basket. Tonight, Bryant passed him the ball, and Gasol literally had time to take a step, eye his target, contemplate the meaning of life, and then release the rock in that beautiful arch that you just know will make the sweetest sound when it goes through the twine. And he did all that with every player on the court, including the one who is supposed to be covering him, standing there just watching. Gasol played almost 37 minutes, had 17 points on 8-15, 11 rebounds, three assists and three blocks, but everyone is fixated on the fact that Bynum broke his double-double streak. It’s not exactly the worst problem to have if you’re the Lakers. And if you’re Gasol, you just do what you do best – lay low and modest…as low as 7 feet of talent and intelligence can go anyway.
1st half – In last night’s game, the Lakers went on a scoring spree in the first two quarters and then choked in the second. Tonight, it was quite the opposite. The first half was abysmal in every sense of the word. The Lakers were slow, inattentive, listless and played like they had gone from their bed to the court. They shot just 37% from the field, hitting on just 15 shots out of 41 attempts. They had collected 12 turnovers (a bad habit that seems harder to break with each game, though they did commit just one in the third and six in the fourth), and they looked like they were mailing it in. It’s a good thing there were still 24 minutes of game to play because they improved to 61% shooting for the second half.
Free throws – The Lakers used to be a 70+% free throw shooting team. Tonight, they missed 9-20 and, in a close game, that will always matter.
No Peace at Staples – With Matt Barnes playing as well as he did, and Metta World Peace, well, not, MWP saw 9:48 minutes of playing time in the first half and didn’t play again in the second. He finished with just two points on 1-3 from the field, two rebounds and one assist. After a couple of good games this early in the season, MWP’s production is barely noticeable. His passes become turnovers and his shot selection is simply questionable. Leading the bench this season has been more Steve Blake than World Peace.
Andrew Bynum – It’s hard to say that a player who grabbed 16 rebounds but only scored nine points didn’t help his team win. But since Bynum’s averaged a double-double since his return from suspension, it’s hard to say he did a lot. There’s no doubt that tonight was a long one for him. In the first half, his stat line read 3 points on 1-3 from field and 1-4 from the free throw line. He did have seven rebounds but that he only attempted three shots and is still having issues on from the charity stripe was a concern. After watching tonight’s film, opposing teams will notice that Bynum is uncomfortable playing out of a double team, and the Warriors doubled him tonight and often. Bynum looked frazzled in the crowd, unsure of how he was going to score so he ended up tossing the ball haphazardly and, of course, it never made it. It’s apparent that there is one flaw to Bynum’s game – he’s still green on the whole playmaking thing. He did swing one pass to a cutting Troy Murphy, but there are other opportunities on the floor that he needs to learn to be aware of. When he can accomplish that, he’ll be even more dangerous.
It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but as long as it ends in the win, who’s to complain? There are a number of issues that the Lakers clearly still need to address (Bynum playing through double teams, controlling the turnovers, three point shooting and for goodness sakes, get some free throw drills going!), but with little time to practice due to the compressed schedule, the games will also have to serve as that practice time that they’re not getting. It’s not the most ideal of situations, but what part of this NBA season is?