That injured shin has prevented Kobe Bryant from putting on his uniform and playing, but it hasn’t stopped him from getting on his feet and cheering on his teammates, which he did a lot tonight and who could blame him?
For the third game in a row, the Lakers had to play without one of their captains, but in his place stepped up a slew of other leaders who did some mighty fine leading. Against the San Antonio Spurs, who are heralded for their success because they play as a team, aren’t distracted by the need for attention and are guided by a no-nonsense coach, the Lakers showed they are more than Kobe’s team and more than the drama they sometimes create.
Spurs coach, Greg Popovich received a combination of praise and raised eyebrows this week for resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. Actually, he didn’t just sit them out. They didn’t even travel with the team to Utah, a game they lost before tonight against the Lakers. With a significant lead in the standings, the Spurs could apparently afford to rest their stars in preparation for this evening’s contest, but based on how the San Antonio Big Three performed, it might’ve been better to keep them playing to avoid the rust. Duncan was the only Spur who took more than four shots and made 50% of his attempts. Parker and Ginobli combined for just 13 points of 5-20 from the field.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have run their starters ragged this season and they’ve shown fatigue and laziness that have resulted in lost leads and lost (completely winnable) games. Tonight, however, they were all in. The game started with each team starting 0-4 , and both shot under 40% from the field. The Lakers’ efforts on the glass, however, kept them ahead throughout, even despite the few lead changes.
After the first half, the Lakers led by just five points, but had outrebounded the Spurs 37-18, led by Andrew Bynum’s 19 rebounds. They also kept the Spurs off the offensive glass, preventing a single second chance point. After two quarters, three Lakers were in double figure points to lead the game.
In the third quarter, the Lakers pulled away, led by the phenomenal play of Metta World Peace, who scored 11 of his 26 points. They were also energized by a defense that forced the Spurs into shooting just 6-20 from the field (30%). The home team couldn’t get a bucket to save their lives and couldn’t run any defense to stop the Lakers from shooting 67%.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobli all sat out the fourth quarter, the mark of Popovich’s white flag, and despite the rest of the team cutting the 26-point lead in half late in the game, the Lakers managed to keep it together to pull out the win.
Teamwork – Before all the individual accolades go out, there must be something said for how the Lakers played as a team. Six players scored in double figures (Gasol and Bynum each had a double-double), nine out of the 10 who played grabbed a rebound (not much to go around with Andrew Bynum on his rebounding tear), everyone who hit the floor handed out at least one assist, the turnovers were kept to an acceptable dozen, no one got a technical and no one got ejected. It’s games like this that make us wonder why EVERY game can’t be played this way.
Rebounding – Rebounds will always equal effort, and the Lakers expended a whole lot of it tonight. They outrebounded the Spurs 60-33 and only gave up ONE offensive rebound to the home team, which they didn’t get until four and half minutes into the third quarter. The Spurs missed 48 shots and only grabbed ONE offenseive rebound. It was one and done on the Spurs’ side of the court, where they were outscored 13-2 in second chance points.
Defense – The Spurs are third in the league in points (102.0 ppg) and field goal percentage (47.2%), but after three quarters, they had scored just 59 points on 38% shooting. They finished 18 points and 7% under their season average, thanks to the Lakers’ defensive efforts. They gave up 13 three pointers, but not much else. Tony Parker wasn’t allowed to roam freely, with Ramon Sessions keeping close and the Lakers’ frontline creating a wall to avoid the penetration from which Parker usually thrives. In one possession, Bynum followed in Parker’s path and timed a block perfectly, which resulted in a fast break basket for Sessions on the other end. The Lakers contested shots, allowed just one offensive rebound and just played with a good energy on both sides of the floor. Whether the offense energized the defense or the other way around isn’t clear, and that’s how it should be when the collective effort is consistent throughout.
Bench Aid – The Spurs bench, who is the fourth best in the league, outscored the Laker reserves 42-25, but that the visiting bench accounted for a fourth of the Lakers’ final score is big deal. They were led by Matt Barnes, who chipped in 13 points on 5-8, including 3-6 from downtown, six rebounds, four assists and a block. Steve Blake contributed 10 points on 4-7, 2-4 from three (including one late in the fourth quarter, which snapped a long scoring drought that reduced their huge lead), three rebounds and three assists.
Metta World Peace – Asked in a post-game interview why he played so well tonight, World Peace answered, “Never give up on yourself. Just keep playing and it’ll happen for you,” and tonight it happened for him. After a questionable inbounds pass in New Orleans that could have cost them the game two nights ago, MWP made amends by channeling his inner Mamba and playing out of his mind. After the first half, he had scored 3-5 from behind the arc and then continued to be aggressive in the final two quarters. He was fouled but hit an off-balance shot from practically behind the backboard and completed the three-point play by hitting the free throw. He followed that with back-to-back stepback, one-legged jumpers a la Dirk Nowitzki and then tossed up a flat-footed three pointer to beat the shot clock. He scored 26 points on 10-15. Add to that four rebounds, a pair of assists and two steals and you’ve got one great night of World Peace. Definitely one of the veteran leaders on this team, MWP directed the offense, he spoke to teammates between timeouts and was just all business out there. He had Kobe Bryant smiling on the bench, telling John Ireland that even though Bryant wasn’t suited up, “[He] WAS out there with us, talking to us.”
Andrew Bynum – He had a double-double in the first half, 10 points and 19 rebounds (the Spurs had just 18 after two quarters). The NBA season high for rebounds in a game was 25 and Bynum’s career high in boards was 23…until tonight. Nevermind his 7-20 from the field, which still resulted in 16 points. Talk about workin’ the glass. Bynum grabbed 30 REBOUNDS tonight, eight on the offensive end. When he grabbed his 30th, Bryant stood up to applaud him. The Spurs as a team grabbed just 33 boards the entire game. No loose ball was safe when Bynum was on the floor, and despite a poor shooting night, helped his team even more than if he had scored 30 points. Again, it’s the effort that rebounds symbolize, and after a trying two weeks filled with people questioning his motives and his commitment to his team, Bynum showed tonight that he’s still here and that he can be depended on. He defended his childhood idol, Tim Duncan, effectively and fought for rebounds without committing a single foul. Not one foul. He was hacked continuously around the hoop, but the officials didn’t have to fend off a single argument from the young center.
Almost-Lost Lead – The Lakers led 89-63 with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. It seemed like a lead they couldn’t possibly lose but, they are still who they are and for about four minutes we were reminded of that. The Lakers scored at the 7:54 mark and then didn’t scored again until a free throw from Ramon Sessions with 3:32 minutes left in the quarter. Their next field goal didn’t come until just under two minutes left in the game when Steve Blake, bless his three-point shooting heart, hit one from downtown to alleviate the drought.
It was a great win for the Lakers against a quality opponent, all without Kobe Bryant. There hasn’t been this consistent of an effort throughout an entire game by this team in a long while and we can only hope that it’s not a fleeting phase. There isn’t much left of the regular season, and with the standings in the Western Conference prone to changes due to the close proximity of win/loss differentials, the Lakers can’t afford to drop any more games. If this is a sign of greater efforts to come, the Lakers could be peaking at the perfect time.
By the way, HAPPY 26TH BIRTHDAY, RAMON SESSIONS!