When the ball moves and everyone gets involved, the Lakers are a tough team to beat. Phoenix found that out this evening as all five Lakers starters scored in double digits and the Lakers held on to defeat the Suns 102-96. A quality win against a game opponent on their home court. A win that drops Phoenix in the playoff standings and ended a four game road losing streak for our guys. All in all, a good night.
This game started out a bit rocky as Amar’e Stoudemire wanted to prove that he’s a max contract player too. Amar’e bulled his way into the paint off strong drives and hard dives off P&R’s and finished in the lane with muscle and power. 17 points and 7 rebounds for STAT in the opening period, leading the Suns to a first quarter lead of 7 points that had the Lakers wobbly out of the gate.
But, in the second period the game started to turn. And it turned on the inside play of Andrew Bynum and the outside shooting of Ron Artest. Bynum established himself as an inside force by using his size, strength, and length to get easy post up chances and offensive rebounds to score in the paint. And while ‘Drew was working the interior, Ron was working the wings. Artest would nail two three pointers in the 2nd period and also get a nice lefty layup off a post up of Robin Lopez to find his offensive game that had gone missing in recent contests. When the 2nd period was over, the Lakers had turned a seven point deficit into a seven point lead and it was all fueled by a closing 20-6 run that turned the tables on Phoenix.
The second half of the game would be defined by offensive runs from both teams and tough, physical play. In the third quarter, the Lakers, making their push to try and win this game early, would eventually extend their lead to 15, but Phoenix would show their determination to not go quietly and went on their own run. The Suns took advantage of some sloppy Lakers play and raced the floor for easy baskets. By the time the third quarter was over, Phoenix would cut the Lakers lead to four and I think all Lakers fans were prepared for another close game that could come down to the final possession. And while this game wouldn’t be that close, there were moments of anxiety as the Suns kept it close and battled the Lakers hard by contesting shots in the paint and, though overmatched physically, not giving an inch.
This led to some of the aforementioned physical play. Louis Amundson was playing his typical, hard nosed ball and was getting blocked shots on defense and crashing the offensive boards hard on the other end. And in one fateful play, he would dive to the hoop, receive a pass, go up to lay the ball in and then get hammered by Gasol. Pau, in an attempt to block Amundson’s shot, clotheslined him and watched him crumble to the floor. This led to Suns’ coach Alvin Gentry getting tossed out the game arguing that the foul should have been a flagrant. But the physical play would not end there as Amundson (again) would get tied up with Andrew Bynum on a (Lakers) defensive rebound. Bynum and Amundson locked arms and then Bynum shed him and whipped him to the ground as he secured the rebound. After all this chippiness, the game would settle down and even though Phoenix tried to keep it close, they didn’t have enough to catch the Lakers as our guys would hold on and close out with a win.
But, to me, this game was defined by the return of some fluidity by the Lakers offense. As I mentioned earlier, all the Lakers’ starters were in double figures and that transpired because of good ball movement. That ball movement led to wide open shots as the Suns couldn’t rotate fast enough to players that had just received skip passes from the strong side or had received the pass after the pass out of the double team. This type of ball movement is what has been missing in recent weeks (save for the 2nd half against Denver) and you could see that our shooters were much more comfortable and shooting with confidence as they could measure their shots and take their time on a lot of their jumpers.
This game also marked the return of an efficient Pau Gasol. 15 points and 8 rebounds for Pau on a nifty 7-11 from the field. If he would have made his FT’s (only 1-5 from the line) his game would have been better, but that’s just nit picking. You throw in his 4 blocked shots and 2 steals, and this was a nice return to form for Pau. And even though there is still room for improvement, I’m quite happy that the big Spaniard was confident on offense and displayed a variety of moves including a beautiful drive left, fake, then reverse pivot jump hook from about 8 feet out. I haven’t seen a move like that from Gasol in (what seems like) weeks and it showed that he was feeling good again on offense.
In the end, this game had its ugly stretches but it was also a game that, save for the first quarter and a couple of brief stretches in the second half, that the Lakers were in control of. And after some tough losses and a buzzer beater in our last 4 games, I’ll take in control any day of the week. Remember, you don’t get extra points for style and when you’re trying to build some momentum going down the stretch of the season this is a win that you can build on. Next up, Golden State.