Everyone was battling for something. The Lakers were fighting to maintain their #2 seed in the West while the Mavericks were fighting to take it. Lamar Odom versus Jason Terry for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki in the Best European Big Man race…okay, there’s no such category but it’s a battle nonetheless.
The Mavericks came into Staples Center tonight to try and take back what the Lakers took from them back in Dallas. They came in with their five-game winning streak, their need to score on the run and their ability to shoot the long ball. They didn’t realize that five-point loss a few weeks ago was just a preview of the real dangers that lie ahead of them if they ever met this Lakers team in the post-season; dangers like overwhelming length, playoff-proven savvy and a hungry defending championship team looking to run over everything and everyone in their way, including a trash-talking bench player and his team’s owner.
Jason Terry told ESPNDallas that he didn’t believe Kobe Bryant wanted to or could, chase him (and Roddy Beaubois) around the court. He said that’s an advantage that Dallas had over the Lakers. With five points on 2-9 shooting, not to mention an ejection and possible suspension, it’s safe to say that Terry’s mouth wrote a check that his performance couldn’t cash. He was anything but advantageous to the Mavericks tonight, first with his poor shooting and absent defense, then with his inability to find composure when his team needed it most. The second leading scorer on a playoff team and the best that Terry could do was to shove Steve Blake to the ground out of frustration for his own failures.
Standing by the Laker bench in the midst of all the commotion that led to four simultaneous ejections (Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood) was Kobe Bryant, who didn’t do so much as raise a hand to make sure his teammates on the sidelines stayed put. He entered the game almost midway into the fourth quarter and kept his team’s mindset in the right place. He was pushed in the back by Dirk Nowitzki on one play, and an official approached him as a cautionary move, but Bryant merely walked towards the free throw line, drilled both, and followed it a few minutes later with a jumper. Bryant had 28 points on 8-21, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. He jumped off the bench after Andrew Bynum’s dunk in the second quarter, raced to engulf Lamar Odom in a bear hug after his third made three pointer, and in the post-game interview with Cheryl Miller, had a wide smile on his face, a rarity from him at this point in the season. Based on his teammates’ efforts and energy tonight, who could blame him?
And who could blame Tyson Chandler’s frustrating evening, having to contend with the likes of Andrew Bynum staking claim of the post? Bynum had 18 points on 6-9 from the field and 6-8 from the stripe. He grabbed 13 rebounds, handed out three assists and blocked two shots. He’s got the drop step to hook shot down to a habit. His 360 pivot just clears the area around him and provides an open look to the basket. He’s as spry as we’ve ever seen him in any season, often beating his teammates to the other end of the floor on defense. All the Mavs’ Chandler got from trying to guard Bynum was four fouls.
Dirk Nowitzki’s 27 points on 10-20 and 13 rebounds might’ve trumped Pau Gasol’s 20 points on 7-14 and seven boards, but in the battle of hustle, Gasol won hands down. While all the attention for the Lakers’ defensive efforts of late have gone to Bynum, Gasol has been discreetly muscling up himself. With the first quarter clock running down, Nowitzki tossed up a floater that was met by a Spanish hand. Gasol contested and therefore changed shots, he was aggressive (got four fouls in the process) and, unlike Nowitzki, had more up his defensive sleeve than a cheap shove to an airborne Kobe Bryant.
When it comes to defense up to his sleeves, however, the Laker who led that way was Ron Artest. In the Lakers’ last meeting with the Mavericks, Shawn Marion went off for 25 points on 11-20. Phil Jackson expressed in an interview before that last game, that his concern was Shawn Marion, not Dirk Nowitzki. So what does a coach do when facing a prolific scorer like Marion? Send in your best defender, Ron Artest, that’s what. With Artest stuck to him the whole game, Marion managed just 9 points on 4-9 and four turnovers. Aside from keep Marion’s production at bay, Artest also scored 13 points on 5-10 (2-4 from 3PT), had a team-high in assists with six. After receiving a pass with this left hand from Lamar Odom, Artest proceeded to shoot that ball with the same left hand AND he was fouled, calling for another bicep-kissing moment.
And finally, if there is any doubt as to who deserves the Sixth Man of the Year Award, let tonight be Lamar Odom’s campaign speech. With just four points at the tail end of the third quarter, Odom hit a corner three to close out before the final break. To open the fourth quarter, Odom hit back to back threes, which he followed with a defensive rebound and coast-to-coast layup. It was literally an 11-0 Odom run. The Swiss-Army knife of a player finished with 16 points on 6-10, 11 rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers. Odom doesn’t need to talk opposing players down to feel exulted; doesn’t need to push and shove opponents to prove he could beat them from anywhere on the court. Odom lets his playing do the talking. A Sixth Man of the Year Award belongs to a reserve who can sub in for a starter without any drop-off in the quality of play on the floor – whether physically (stats) or mentally (attitude), and Lamar Odom is IT.
Tonight was a big win for the Lakers, for all the statements it made and for all ground they’ve managed to cover since the All-Star break. With the ejected reserves from the game, a handful of suspensions could leave the team short-handed in tomorrow’s contest against the Jerry Sloan-less, Deron Williams-less Utah Jazz. But if tonight was any indication, this defending championship team’s determination and solidarity may just be enough to carry them through despite the short roster.
And as a postscript – despite all the intensity, all the clawing and jawing, the Lakers had just SEVEN turnovers. How’s that for composure in time of disorder?!
Pre-game Thoughts: With the Spurs losing to the Celtics tonight, the Lakers are that much closer to attaining that #1 seed…if they can get by a Dallas team determined to take back that #2 seed. Jason Terry’s talking about Kobe Bryant doesn’t want to chase him and Beaubois around because he wouldn’t be able to keep up. Mamba and the gang need to put this Sixth Man of the Year runner-up in his place. A win tonight for the Lakers would be HUGE.
Half-time Thoughts: 51-54 – It’s been a close game thus far, with the Lakers dominating the Mavs with their size on both ends of the court, all the while taking care of the ball (Lakers with just 3 turnovers to Dallas’ 8). Dallas is trying to stay in it from the free throw and 3-point lines. Shawn Marion, who had a field day in the last meeting, is just 2-6 from the field for his 4 points, due in large part to Ron Artest’s smothering defense. Dirk Nowitzki leads all scores with 14 on 6-11, Pau Gasol’s got 13 on 6-10, and Kobe Bryant’s right there with 12 points on 5-13. The Lakers are down on the glass, 18 to the Mavs 25. They need to do more work on the boards and close in on those three-point shooters.
Most Thoughtless Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Killer B’s…again! On the one hand, they stayed scrappy out there, defending their teammates, taking a stand and getting ejected because of it. But when your stat lines read a combined 9 points on 3-14, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 60 minutes of floor time, there’s a lot more you could have done to help your team than play enforcer. Now the Lakers could be three reserves down in tomorrow’s game if suspensions are carried out, the second night of a back to back. We’ll see if today’s statements by the B’s were worth it.
Most Thought-filled Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Kobe Bryant – remaining calm in the midst of a storm and leading the team to a blowout win over a tough opponent. He kept teammates on the bench during the scuffle and didn’t make a big deal over the blatant, but ignored, flagrant foul when Dirk Nowitzki shoved him on his way to the hoop.