With just over a minute left on this New Year’s Eve game, the Lakers’ 14-point lead had shrunk and the score was tied, 98-98. Kobe Bryant had possession of the ball, surveyed the floor, weighed all of his options, then drove baseline, rose up, and hit stepback from the corner. Lakers 100, Sixers 98. Philadelphia missed their next opportunities to score, was forced to foul Bryant. Bryant, in turn, hit both of his free throws, giving the home team a 102-98 advantage that stayed put until the final buzzer on this last day of 2010.
Yes, the Lakers have struggled of late, recently adding yet another losing streak to this season’s record, but the signature backbone of this team has re-surfaced, and what better way to end the new year, than with a victory that strengthens.
The proverbial foundation of this Lakers team’s success lie in their strength inside, physically and figuratively. With Andrew Bynum’s return to the starting line-up to join Pau Gasol, the team’s seven-foot wall is now available for war at the on-set. Each big man put in 30+ minutes and in their time on the floor, the Sixers were forced to work that much harder to score, not to mention defend.
Bynum had just eight points on 3-6 shooting, but his ability to position himself to score has clearly improved from his initial return to the active roster. He backed up Elton Brand early in the first quarter, turning around and then dunking on the smaller forward. Later in the third, Bynum dunked a miss by Derek Fisher. It was obvious he’d gotten some spring back in his step and his timing is just about back to normal. Tonight, however, wasn’t about Bynum’s impact offensively. Tonight, everyone was reminded what the young center contributes defensively, and aside from altering several shot attempts by the Sixers, Bynum collected15 rebounds (13 defensive) and that made all the difference in this game.
A complement to Bynum’s productive evening was Pau Gasol. Going 9-12 and hitting both of his free throws, Gasol had a most efficient 20 points for the game; appearing to shoot as easily as he breathes. His mid-range jumper is (and there’s no other way to describe it), like butta’. His release is so clean, and the arch so precise, when Gasol’s eyes look straight-on at the basket, it doesn’t matter who stands in his way – that ball’s going in and the net will scarcely feel a thing. For a well-rounded evening, the Spanish forward also added eight rebounds, two steals, two blocks and an assist.
Reinforcing the Lakers’ big men backbone was, of course, Lamar Odom. Starter or reserve – it doesn’t matter to the most versatile player in the league. Upon his entrance into the game in the first quarter, he scored on a putback off a Ron Artest missed, and he followed that with a fast break lefty finger roll that earned him a chance at a three-point play. As is his M.O., Odom did everything on the coaching staff’s game-day to-do list – he scored (18 points on 8-13), rebounded (seven boards), ran the offense (four assists) and just provided the energy on the floor that never fails to fire up this Lakers team.
Leading the pack tonight was none other than Kobe Bryant, and a younger-looking one at that. Maybe playing his hometown team possessed him with a youthful spirit, because Bryant rose up on more than a few occasions to add a poster or two to his 2010 highlight reel. His first dunk came at the expense of Andres Nocioni, who never saw it coming. Later he drove baseline so quickly, the Sixers defense had scarcely a second to even try to do anything to stop him. Later Bryant head-faked and kissed one off the glass, and all-game long giving young rookie Evan Turner lessons he won’t soon forget.
Another positive to take away from this game were glimpses of Ron Artest’s offense slowly making its return. He shot 4-6 (2-4 from 3PT) 11 points and looked every bit as focused on defense as the team depends on him to be.
Getting a victory by playing their game was a good way to end such a banner year (again, physically and figuratively) for the Los Angeles Lakers. A 23-10 record isn’t too shabby, but the team will no doubt begin 2011 with plans of improving and getting back into true Championship form. Another banner year doesn’t sound so bad.
Pre-game Thoughts: Continue to do what works – feed the inside, move the ball and rebound. It’s New Year’s Eve – end 2010 with a victory!
Half-time Thoughts: 44-52 – Lakers led by as much as 12 points but took their foot off the gas and have allowed the Sixers to jump in and out of single-digit deficits. The home team can finish this quickly, but they need to buck up defensively- too many layups for Philadelphia. Kobe Bryant leading all scores with 14 points on 4-9 and Pau Gasol is working the glass with a game-leading 8 boards.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Not So Killer B’s – Lamar Odom aside, the reserves comprised of Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown, could only muster 11 points. They need to get their offense back and soon.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Kobe Bryant – back to his old tricks, dunking all over people and hitting clutch hoops. Always a treat to see THIS version of Kobe.