Don’t look now, but the Lakers have a three game winning streak…ON THE ROAD. It seems like months since those back-to-back losses in Detroit and D.C., yet just a week after, the team has found some gusto to come up from behind (for a change) to win in the end. It hasn’t been pretty, getting behind by as much as 17 points in yesterday’s game against the Grizzlies and then again today against the lowly Hornets, but they’ve been getting those W’s nonetheless.
A common knock on the Lakers this season has been that they haven’t blown out very many teams. Some pundits have looked at their impressive 19-2 record at home and brush it off, partly because they weren’t all won dominantly. To critics, a Laker win isn’t enough. A win against a good team like Miami didn’t count because they were without Chris Bosh, or against Memphis because Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay didn’t play. Two wins against a still formidable team like the Boston Celtics has been waved away by some analysts because they’re no longer considered one of the “elite” teams in the league. Even in tonight’s win, against the scrappy New Orleans Hornets, the Lakers will surely be chastised for having to work so hard to win against a now 10-33 team. But as Derek Fisher told John Ireland in a post-game interview, they don’t really have a recipe yet for winning on the road, but if they have to claw and scratch to get there, they will. Amen, D-Fish.
On the second night of a back-to-back, after a double overtime victory over the Grizzlies, the Lakers, not surprisingly, came out sluggish, shooting just 38% in the first quarter and falling behind by 14 points going into halftime. They barely managed to score 40 points in those first two quarters and couldn’t quell the Hornets, who shot 62%. The break between halves, however, seemed equivalent to a power nap, as the Lakers came into the third and outscored the Hornets 30-16 on 65% shooting to tie the game going into the final 12 minutes; where they again ended the game tied after Gustavo Ayon fouled Kobe Bryant behind the three-point line and Bryant, of course, hit all three free throws. Another overtime – unbelievable.
In OT (it only took one, this time), it was all Bryant on offense and all Metta World Peace on defense. It’s not a bad recipe for victory.
MWP – MVP – Kobe Bryant hit some incredible shots in this game, he was perfect from the free throw line, and the Laker Big Men contributed in the only way they know how, but if not for the defense of Metta World Peace, this could have easily been another notch in the loss column. His box score is relatively sparse – seven points on 3-7, two rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block and zero turnovers, but as is the case in the game of basketball, not all good things can be reduced to a simple stat. Jarrett Jack, for example, killed the Lakers in the first half, going 8-9 for his 17 points. In the greater part of the second half of regulation, with MWP on his tail, Jack went just 3-9 from the field. Overtime, however, is where World Peach really put on a defensive show. With the Lakers behind by a point, MWP saved a ball from going out of bounds and quickly passed to Derek Fisher who hit a jumper that put the Lakers up by a point. In the following Hornets possession, MWP intercepted a pass from Chris Kaman and then ran off to the other end to score on a layup. And then, with the Lakers up by four points and the Hornets hoping to produce in the 22.1 seconds that were left, World Peace blocked Kaman from behind, capping off an excellent defensive night.
Kobe Bryant – He played almost 52 minutes in last night’s overtime, and logged in another 49 minutes tonight. Still, after hugging former teammate, Trevor Ariza on the floor at the end of the game, Bryant had a bounce in his step, telling sideline reporter, Mike Trudell, just how good he felt. Today he contributed 33 points on 10-23 from the field, a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe, four rebounds, five assists and two steals. He drove to the hoop as fearless as he’s ever been, scoring on layups and breakaway dunks, not to mention a sweet up and under in traffic. After converting three free throws to tie the game at the end of regulation, he played another five minutes and shot 2-3 from the field and 3-3 from the free throw line. Stu Lantz kept referring to him as “that young man,” and though 33 in the NBA is considered AARP-eligible, Bryant played with the energy of a rookie.
Andrew Bynum – The Hornets were clearly prepared for Bynum’s wrath, crowding him and forcing him into a six-point, 2-6 from the field type of half. Unlike his old self, however – the version who got discouraged after a stretch of subpar play in a game – Bynum adjusted and went 8-11 in the second half. It was another huge night for him, with 25 points on 10-17, 18 huge rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks. If there is any sign of growth and maturity on Bynum’s part, it was the stark difference in performance from one half to the next. Bryant mentioned a patience that Bynum has learned to apply in every game. He’s starting to understand that he can control whether one bad possession or one bad shot could dictate the rest of his game.
Barnes and Blake – Who knows if this combo will exist come Friday against Minnesota, but for the time being, they were practically THE bench in tonight’s game. As far as scoring goes, their 13 don’t compare to the Hornets’ 27 bench points, but as they always seem to do in these games, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake still found a way to contribute. In that excellent run in the third quarter, it was Barnes’ three that finally tied the Lakers with the Hornets, and after Vazquez’s jumper to get ahead by a deuce, it was Blake’s jumper that answered it. Barnes contributed 10 points and five rebounds to the game, which does not go amiss, especially considering how close the contest was.
Pau Gasol – With the trade deadline less than 24 hours away, it’s a wonder Gasol can even function not knowing whether today’s game was his last with the Lakers (see 6 turnovers). Still, he contributed 18 points on 7-18, 10 rebounds, four assists, and a steal. There is no telling what’s running through Gasol’s mind at the moment, and goodness knows if he’ll find a way to get any sleep. No matter what happens, however, there are no words that could describe how much he has given, or perhaps still be giving, to this Lakers team.
Turnovers – Enough with the turnovers already! As if last night’s 17 wasn’t enough, the Lakers wanted to up the ante and put up 19 tonight just to outdo themselves. Fatigue may have been a factor of the sloppiness, but what was their excuse last night?
Sluggish Start – Though understandable, the Lakers’ having to play from so far behind could have been prevented if they had played with just a tad of energy in the first half. But they barely shot 40% and turned the ball over 12 times before the break. Three pointers were plenty attempted (9) but barely converted (3). It was a lazy 24 minutes, but at least they were able to recover in the second half…plus overtime.
Minutes – As if last night’s minutes weren’t enough to wear this team out, the Lakers’ big three put up another set of gargantuan playing times tonight – 49 minutes for Bryant, 46 minutes for Bynum and 42 minutes for Gasol. That plane ride back to L.A. should be something of a snoozefest, and hopefully a day of rest before Friday’s game, will energize this team.
The Lakers will continue to chip away at their poor road record, and until it’s at .500 (or maybe not even then), critics will continue to scrutinize this Lakers team because, well, it’s probably their job to do so, but the only way the Lakers can shut them down is to keep winning. Thursday will be a day filled with news, and there’s no telling what this team will look like in two days. Hopefully no matter what happens, however, victory remains the goal.