Break’s over people. All-Star weekend has come and gone (as is Carmelo Anthony from Denver – FINALLY) and the post-season is clearer and closer than ever on the horizon. Forget the injuries. Forget the losing streaks. Forget the puzzling subpar play in the first 57 games. That three-peat is incumbent on what the Lakers do from here on out.
Before the game this evening, Assistant Coach Brian Shaw wrote, “Roll Call” on the locker room board; a way to ask the team, “Who’s in this to win this?” And based on tonight’s performance, they’re off to a good start.
Every Laker who got some floor time scored, from Pau Gasol who played over 33 minutes to Joe Smith who played just under six. The home team played defense from the first quarter until the buzzer sounded, refusing to take their collective foot off the gas, leading by 21 points at the half, then by 26 after the third en route to a 24-point victory. Atlanta shot just 34% after two quarters and 37% for the game. The Hawks managed to score just 54 points in the first three quarters.
“We told the guys to bring whatever their talent is to this team; whatever they do to bring it, from this point on to the rest of the season,” Shaw said to Michael Eaves. Well, bring it they did, individually and as a team.
Andrew Bynum attempted three shots in this game and only managed to convert one, plus a handful of free throws for his five points. But he had 15 rebounds and three blocks, not to mention a slew of shot attempts by Atlanta that changed directions merely because he challenged them. The Lakers have not only wanted Bynum to learn to be a great defender in the post; they want him to embrace this responsibility as a real protector in the paint. What better time to develop then excel in this important role than now, with still two months left before the playoffs?
Pau Gasol, the resident double-double man, had 14 points on 4-9, not to mention 10 rebounds. It may not have been a huge offensive night for the All-Star, but he sure had fun out there, especially in moments that called for a seven-foot point guard. Gasol led a couple of fast breaks, dribbling quickly down the court and then passing to a running teammate. In these instances tonight, that teammate was Ron Artest (11 points on 4-7).
Kobe Bryant had a somewhat quiet 20 points on 5-11 and led the team in assists with five. He didn’t need to be a hero tonight. He just needed to play loose. He and co-captain Derek Fisher (10 points on 3-7. 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal) set the tone from the first second in this game. Bryant stole the ball early in the first quarter, and then threw a pass to Fisher who hit a jumper. A minute later, Fisher received yet another pass from Bryant and converted on a wide open shot. It can’t be said enough that this Lakers team goes where their captains go. If it’s a three-peat this team desires, they are well-led by Bryant and Fisher.
The Lakers also received a sizable boost from their reserves, who contributed 44 points, 21 rebounds and seven assists. Even bench players Joe Smith, Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks were called to the floor. Shannon Brown, who has appeared then disappeared offensively this season, had 15 points on 6-9.
Asked if tonight’s contest was a statement game, Bryant replied, “It’s not about statements. It’s about playing the right way.” That “right way” calls for a consistent effort on defense, working their inside game and taking advantage of their size, no matter who they play. The only team the Lakers have to worry about is themselves. Every player in a gold uniform had a hand in winning this game and in the end, something as simple as re-establishing their roles and remembering what they bring to this championship defending team can create a world of difference in their play.
“This is all about us. It’s been about us all season long,” Brian Shaw said. “Other teams – we’re not concerned about them. If we do what we’re capable of doing, nobody can beat us.”
The Lakers have 24 more games to steer this ship in the right direction again, but that’s only if every crew member does his job, and does it well.
Pre-game Thoughts: It’s not quite a clean slate, but nothing can be done with the 57 games that are now behind us. All that matters for the Lakers now is how they play in these final 25 games before the playoffs. Learn from the past, but continue to look forward.
Half-time Thoughts: 33-54 – Save the nine turnovers, to say that the Lakers are dominating this game so far would be an understatement. They’ve absolutely owned the Atlanta Hawks so far with Derek Fisher leading the team with 10 points. Andrew Bynum’s already collected 11 rebounds and Kobe Bryant’s got five assists. With a game tomorrow, cementing a win as early as possible will benefit the Lakers, but it will take a sustained effort on defense (Hawks only shot 34%), good ball movement (12 assists on 18 field goals so far) and better care of the ball (already have nine turnovers.
Most Thoughtless Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: 18 turnovers? At least the Lakers show well from the free throw line.
Most Thought-filled Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Andrew Bynum – Maybe he’s finally getting it. Helping the team isn’t always about how many points you score or how many shot attempts you get up. For Andrew Bynum tonight, it was all about the defense; contesting shots and cleaning up the boards.