There were M-V-P chants for Kobe Bryant at the free throw line. There were cheers when Andrew Bynum rebounded a miss and dunked it in. Clumps of people dressed in purple and gold stood and applauded as the clock ran out and the Lakers collected their eighth victory in a row. Staples Center, is that you?
Nope – the Lakers were on the road in Atlanta to pick up where they left off the last time these two teams met. It seems like ages ago, but in their first game after the All-Star break, the defending champs pummeled over the Hawks in a 24-point victory at home. Tonight, they led by as much as 22 points and, despite a moment of slippage in the fourth quarter, went on to win by 14.
Kobe Bryant, continuing to climb the ladder of greatness with no end in sight, passed the legendary Moses Malone to take over the sixth spot on the NBA all-time scoring list. Bryant scored just 4 points in the first quarter en route to a 26 point, 6 rebound, 4 assist, 1 block, 1 turnover and zero fouls kind of game. There were no one-on-one battles that took the rest of the team out of the offense; no strange shot selection or defensive lapses on the Laker co-captain’s part. He, like the team, is being aggressive without being careless and it’s paying off in bunches.
Speaking of bunches, how about Andrew Bynum picking up rebounds like apples off a tree?! Tonight he grabbed 16 boards to go along with his 16 points on 8-10 shooting. He also had three blocks and altered countless shot attempts. Asked about his ability to change the game with little scoring, Bynum told John Ireland just after the game, “I’m putting a lot of energy on the defensive side of the basketball. On this team, that’s where I can fit in the most, and really really make a big difference and contribute.”
“Making a big difference” is an understatement. Bynum has changed the face of this Lakers’ team. Where they were overbearing offensively and competent defensively before, they are now just as menacing on the defensive end as they were with the ball in their possession. It’s not a coincidence that the Lakers are on a different level when Bynum is an active part of the game. The best part about his contribution now, however, is that since he’s already well-aware of his scoring arsenal, he’s gotten a renewed vigor for the game because he’s discovered what he’s capable of on the defensive end, helping him to become a dominant player all-around.
With all the talk of Bynum’s recent emergence as the Lakers’ newest defensive stopper, the other two veteran big men have continued their consistent play. Pau Gasol had yet another double-double to add to this collection this season, going for 14 points on 6-16, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Atlanta’s Zsa Zsa Pachulia and Josh Smith tried to make it as difficult for Gasol to score as possible, but the savvy forward knows better. A spin move to a reverse layup here, a mid-range jumper there, a lefty-hook shot to follow – it was a tall order for Pachulia and Smith to completely shut Gasol down, which they obviously didn’t.
Lamar Odom came off the bench and contributed 12 points on 5-8 but had only two rebounds, an oddity for a board-hog like him. But Odom proved again tonight that he is as much of a nightmare to defend as his teammate Kobe Bryant. The Lakers’ sixth man can do it all from anywhere on the court – drive to the hoop for a finger roll, spot up from behind the arc for a three (of which he didn’t attempt any today but he can certainly shoot from there), rebound a miss and toss in a floater. What’s needed most from Odom now, other than what he already contributes on the floor, is to lead that second unit to more productive games.
The Laker reserves scored 20 points in the first half but failed to maintain a 22-point lead in the fourth, which brought the starters back to finish the game. In the second half, the bench scored just seven points, which isn’t nearly enough of a contribution. Steve Blake needs to do more than just run the offense. He needs to be an active participant of it. Matt Barnes will surely improve once he shakes off the rust from being out for 26 games and Shannon Brown needs to be quicker about his intentions when the ball is in his hands. Too much dribbling will more than likely lead to turnovers.
The Lakers held Atlanta to just 16 points in the third quarter and defended them into two shot-clock violations. They’ve now gone 8-0 since the All-Star weekend, reminiscent of their 8-0 streak to start the season, and they’ve held teams to 87.0 ppg and 40.2% shooting in these last eight games. With a 24-11 road record thus far, they’ve already surpassed the number of away wins they collected last season.
Asked what the difference has been in the last eight games, Bryant replied simply, “We’re locked in.”
If the Lakers can maintain this locked-in mentality in all aspects of their game, they will be, as they have been lately, very difficult to defeat. Alas, with 17 games left in the regular season, still more tests await.
Pre-game Thoughts: The Lakers haven’t won at Phillips Arena in Atlanta since 2007. Let’s see if they can keep their post-All-Star weekend momentum going by breaking that losing streak before it turns into the Rose Garden variety.
Half-time Thoughts: 57-49 – It was a shootout showdown after the first quarter, with the Lakers shooting 64% and the Hawks just as sharp at 60%. Atlanta soon discovered, however, that getting past the Lakers’ defense is no walk in the park. Kobe Bryant leads all scores with 15 points, passing Moses Malone to on the NBA all-time scoring list, and the Lakers bench outscored Atlanta’s 20-10. The visitors shot 58% in that first half, and the Hawks dipped to just 46% shooting from the field. If the Lakers can keep Atlanta from gaining any momentum, this game’ll be done before the fourth quarter.
Most Thoughtless Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Lakers’ bench unit to begin the fourth quarter – The lead went from 22 to 8 with a quickness because the Lakers’ offense suddenly unraveled, and their defense wasn’t far behind. The starters had to check back in with seven minutes remaining to finish the game. The reserves have to be dependable to close out, which they haven’t done these last two games.
Most Thought-filled Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Kobe Bryant passed Moses Malone to take the sixth place on the NBA all-time scoring list tonight, but we can’t get enough of Andrew Bynum’s dominance. He only scored four points in the last game against the Spurs, but tonight, the young big man was as turned on offensively as he was defensively. It’s like the stars are finally starting to align for Bynum, and the Lakers finally get the benefit.