Pau Gasol waited for Kobe Bryant before approaching the bench for a timeout. They smiled at each other, Pau rubbed Kobe on the back of the head and suddenly, a familiar phenomenon resurfaced; one that seemed to come and go as this past season has progressed. Just a few seconds before Portland called the timeout, the shot clock ran down to its final few seconds when Kobe penetrated, jumped like he was going to take a shot, but passed to his left where Pau was waiting. In one swift move, Pau caught the ball in midair with both hands, lowered his left arm, and guided the ball with his right — two points.
The phenomenon that was there throughout last season’s championship run but seems to have gone missing through so much of this season? A kindred spirit — that kinship and natural affinity towards each other, in this case, out there on the hardwood.
Last season’s Laker team was overflowing with this kinship. They had one mission — a championship title; one strategy — defense; and they had one collective attitude — all or nothing.
This season, however, this kindredness has been difficult to identify.
This Sunday afternoon game was the second of a nationally televised double-header with the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers playing first (Note: Does anyone notice how the Lakers seem to lose on the same days that the Cavaliers lose? Just a strange observation). Though the Lakers have already secured home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, and beating Cavaliers out of the best record in the league is now impossible, a secondary goal of at least staying ahead of Orlando for the second best record was set, just in case the two teams were to meet again in the Finals.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, getting from Game 1 of the playoffs to Game 1 of the NBA Finals will not be a cakewalk. First they have to get through teams in the tougher of the two conferences and their first round possible match-up could be their opponents today — the Portland Trailblazers.
Still without two of their big men, many analysts have counted out the Blazers. With a young core, however, combined with three veteran players in Andre Miller, Juwan Howard, and Marcus Camby, Portland is the last team anyone should overlook and the Lakers played the majority of the game respecting their opponent.
They matched the Blazers’ energy on both ends of the court without playing erratically (they only had six turnovers to the road team’s 11). They exposed Portland’s defensive lapses to get to the hoop with ease (Lamar Odom took advantage of all the open lanes in transition to get lay-ups). They clamped down on shooters (no Blazer attempted more than four shots from downtown and they made 6 out of 15).
Pau and Lamar, who work seamlessly together since Pau’s arrival in 2008, were the movers of their team this afternoon. Since Andrew Bynum has been out, Pau has popped back into the center position, scoring and rebounding at will. Whether it’s a jump shot from 17 feet, a quick lob inside, or spin-move to a driving lay-up, Pau is a threat from anywhere but the three-point line. Today he had 23 points on 9-13, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.
When Lamar is active, especially offensively, the Lakers are that much more capable of beating anyone they play. Today he scored on inside passes that led to uncontested dunks, on his signature defensive rebound, coast-to coast transition lay-up, on shots from well outside the paint. He also took care of the glass. Lamar finished with 16 points on 8-15, 15 rebounds and 3 assists.
After missing the last two games, Kobe Bryant felt well enough to play today. Though he shot a paltry 8-23 from the field, he did in the last few minutes what he always does. First, he shot a long three to cut the Portland lead to two. He then followed that with a driving scoop shot with a foul to make it 86-87. However in the end, he missed two key free throws.
Derek Fisher, who has not been shooting well all season, had 14 points on 6-11. Andre Miller fouled him in the waning seconds of the game after Pau rebounded Kobe’s second missed free throw and threw a pass to Derek for safekeeping or scoring. Placed in another moment to be his clutch self, he missed the first free throw. Kobe turned away and smiled, probably wondering how he and his co-captain, who have bailed out their team repeatedly, could have put themselves in this position. They could have been up by three at that point.
With the game tied 88-88, Portland inbounded the ball and Derek fouled Martell Webster in the middle of a three-point attempt; a strange and very uncharacteristic for a veteran player. Webster hit all three free throws and with 3.1 seconds left, Pau Gasol was the only player in position to attempt a three-pointer for overtime. Unfortunately, he is not efficient from that spot.
Portland played to win this game, despite missing Brandon Roy for the second half, in hopes of getting a win and avoiding the Lakers in the first round. The Lakers played to win… until the very end where untimely errors crushed their attempt.
Orlando won today, by the way, and overtook the second best record in the league. If the Lakers know what’s good for them, they will cross that bridge to Orlando when (or if) they get there. In the meantime, seven Western Conference teams would gladly take that trip in June to the East Coast for them.
Pre-game Thoughts: Kobe’s playing today. Hopefully, the two missed games will be his last break of the season.
Half-time Thoughts: 45-46, Lakers. It has been a game of mini-runs so far. Each time the Lakers established a relatively good lead, the Blazers catch up quickly.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Since we have run out of words to describe disappointment in the bench… again, this category goes to Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant in the last minute of the game. They combined for three missed free throws and for Derek, fouling a three-point attempt.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom both played efficiently, energetically and purposefully today. They combined for 39 points on 17-28 shooting, 27 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 blocks and a steal each.