The last time the Sacramento Kings visited Staples Center, they had played their hearts out against the defending champions; and only until the last few seconds of the game did those same hearts turn cold, frozen by the buzzer-beating game winner off the hands of the cold-blooded, Kobe Bryant.
Tonight there would be no last second heroics for the Lakers and certainly no moral victories for the Kings. Tonight, there would not even be a Kobe Bryant on the court. Tonight was all about getting another game closer to the real season of the NBA — the playoffs.
Starting in Kobe’s place in the line-up was Shannon Brown. In his 6th start of the season, Shannon played more than admirably in his captain’s shoes. He shot 3-7 from downtown, showed off his improvement from mid-range, intercepted and then scored from an inbounds pass, and found open lanes in which to taxi and take off for his signature dunk. Shooting 10-19, he finished with 24 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and zero turnovers.
Also filling in for Kobe’s absence at the 2-guard was Sasha Vujacic, who has not been this active since the last win in Utah. Sasha chased down rebounds, defensive and offensive, hit one buzzer-beating three to end the first quarter, and rebounded then faded away for 2 points to end the third. He defended Omri Casspi closely, providing his opponent little space in which to maneuver. Casspi finished with just four points on 2-11 while his defender for most of the evening. In the end, Sasha finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal.
Though Pau Gasol did finish with another efficient game, collecting 28 points on 13-15 shooting (that’s 87%!), 8 rebounds and 3 assists; and although Lamar Odom put in another double-digit rebound with 10 and added 4 assists, the story this evening, pleasantly shocking, was the Laker bench.
Four starters, with the exception of Shannon Brown who played over 41 minutes, all played under 35 minutes, Phil Jackson entrusting his reserves to take over the game. Every player who checked in scored, played defense and ran the offense.
D.J. Mbenga, in his newly golden hair to match Ron Artests’, has been getting some burn lately, and tonight he showed what he contributes to the team — an inherent toughness and fearlessness on the floor. Blocking is a reflex for him and, though he missed an opportunity for an uncontested dunk, he doesn’t often let much discourage him and he was rewarded with 15:45 minutes and a 7 point, 5 rebound, and a 1 block shot kind of night.
Luke Walton, looking healthier and limber than in recent months, was his playmaking and distributing self. He had 9 points, 3 assists, 1 block, and the ultimate trust of the Lakers coaching staff. Like Lamar Odom, ball movement is more efficient and more purposeful when Luke is on the floor. A backdoor lob to an air born Jordan Farmar is just one of Luke’s many signature passes and if not for D.J.’s moving screen call, that would’ve been an easy two points.
The only downside to the Laker bench’s production was Jordan Farmar’s early exit in the second quarter, caused by a strained hamstring. He spent the latter half of the game in the locker room and is listed as day-to-day. Another possible injury on the roster at this time of the season is the last thing the Lakers need, but if their bench plays as efficiently as they did tonight, the team can claim that depth that they speak of but have had little to show for.
Rookie of the Year Candidate Tyreke Evans, in the last game of his freshman season, was ejected in the third quarter for complaining on a non-call, and then continuing to complain after the first technical was issued. In a game of little consequence to both teams, the Kings’ star rookie acted the fool, and the Lakers acted like a team who is ready to get the regular season done with.
Pre-game Thoughts: It’s the second to the last game of the regular season? Wow! Where has the season gone?!
Half-time Thoughts: 54-60, Lakers. The Lakers bench has 24 points to the Kings’ bench’s 18. When was the last time the Lakers bench led the opposing bench after the first half?
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: They won the game and the starters got a lot of rest. Probably the only downside about their game tonight were the 16 turnovers. Have to take care of the ball come playoff time, fellas.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Shannon Brown, who started in Kobe’s place, finished with 24 points; and Sasha Vujacic, coming off the bench with 13 points and 6 rebounds.