Ahh, the sweet taste of victory. After two straight defeats and losing three of four games, it definitely feels nice to get a win. It feels even better to beat the Jazz – one of the better teams in the conference and the team that held the number two seed coming into tonight’s contest. But what makes it feel best is how the Lakers pretty much controlled this game from the opening tip to the final buzzer. And though this may not have been the 48-minute performance that many fans have been searching for, but the Lakers still dominated the Jazz in this 106-92 victory.
And they did it on the strength of their first and fourth quarter performances. At the start of the game it was obvious that the Lakers were dialed in. Offensively and defensively there was a focus to every little detail and a commitment to execution that has been lacking in recent games. When the Lakers had the ball there was a crispness to their sets that was both refreshing and intoxicating. Watching the ball move with ease and purpose was like a revelation as it’s something that we just haven’t had the pleasure to see since the Rockets game nearly a week ago. And on defense, the Lakers were swarming the ball and contesting shots all over the court. The Lakers would force 5 turnovers in the first quarter alone and it keyed their ability to get easy buckets in transition and pile on the points. By the time the quarter was over, the Lakers led 33-16 and were in complete control.
In the 2nd and 3rd quarters, though, Utah would make their push. After the initial buzz of crowd died down and the Lakers’ back ups came into the game, the Jazz slowly started to chip away at the lead. That 17 point first quarter Lakers lead was cut to 9 at the half. At the end of the third the lead would be down to 8. The Jazz just fought and played smart and took advantage of the one match up in their favor over and over again. What was that match up? Deron Williams over any Laker that tried to guard him. Over the middle portion of the game, Deron just controlled the contest. After the Jazz secured a defensive rebound, Deron would receive an outlet pass beat Farmar up the court in transition for an easy bucket. The next time down he’d draw a foul on Artest who was trying to body him as he raced the ball into the frontcourt. On another possession after that he’d cross over Kobe to get to the rim and create an easy shot for himself. (On what seemed like the) Next time down he’d do the same thing to set up a teammate. The man was simply amazing and, as I stated in the game preview, continued to make his claim as the best point guard in the NBA this season. He ran roughshod over the Lakers entire defense to the point that early in the 4th quarter the Jazz would get as close as 4. But that would be as close as they would get because the final nine and a half minutes of this game would belong to the Lakers.
In that fourth quarter, the Lakers just made play after play. A made three pointer was followed by a defensive stop. Then there was an offensive rebound and an “and one” put back. And then another defensive stop was followed by another three pointer. And on it went. In what was seemingly the blink of an eye, a four point game was fourteen and this game was the route that was foreshadowed in the first quarter. And the man driving the bus was Lamar Odom. Every once and a while, Lamar has a game that reminds everyone how special a player he is. It’s like he wants to show everyone one more time why he was drafted as high as he was and why he got that big contract with Miami and why so many fans wanted him resigned in the off season. Our lanky lefty was simply the difference in this game. On a night where the Lakers won by 14, Lamar was +30 on the evening. His stat line of 26 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block only begins to tell the story of his impact on the game. He just seemed to make every play that mattered. The aforementioned sequence was actually all him and was actually a run of 9 straight Lakers points from LO where his baskets and defensive rebounds extended the game from a 4 point lead at 75-71 to 84-72 and was only broken up by single Mehment Okur free throw.
But Lamar didn’t win this game on his own. Pau Gasol was also excellent. Though he only shot 4-8 from the field and 6-10 from the foul line for 14 total points, Pau impacted the game in almost every other way imaginable by grabbing 16 rebounds, dishing out 9 assists, and tallying a steal and a block all without committing a single foul. I mean, the man was one assist away from a triple double and played 42 minutes at Center (mostly guarding Carlos Boozer) without committing a foul. Amazing. But it wasn’t just the numbers that he produced; it was the quiet control he had over the game. The way he was the foundation of our offense from the post. The way that shots were contested when they needed to be. The screens he set to help get his teammates open. Overall, despite the low scoring output, just a masterful game from Gasol.
And then there was Kobe “today I’m a lot richer” Bryant. Yes, his shot was off – needing 23 shots to get his 25 points. But in a game where a bunch of those shots that typically do go in didn’t, Kobe adjusted and attacked the rim to draw fouls and earn trips to the FT line. And though he had a rough patch where he missed three consecutive freebies, he still connected on his other 15 attempts finishing 15-18 from the stripe. The mark of a great player is finding a way to make an impact even when the best parts of your game aren’t working, and as a scorer Kobe did that tonight (while also grabbing 6 boards with 3 assists too). Derek Fisher also deserves a shout out for his solid play this evening. Five for seven from the field (including 2-3 from three) for Fish for a total of 14 points. And, as a veteran should, Fish adjusted his game later on in the contest after he forced up a jumper and got an earful from Phil when the coach called a timeout after a particularly shaky possession. Fisher heeded Phil’s call for stability and from that point forward ran our sets, making the proper reads with the ball and organizing our offense expertly (which is more than I can say for our other guards).
In the end this wasn’t their best game but it was pretty damned good. There were rough patches for sure – our bench was again substandard, we again allowed a big double digit lead to get too close, and Artest still wasn’t sharp with his outside shot – but I’ll take a 14 point win over a contender any day of the week. Especially when all of us fans have had a lot of complaints about this team’s ability to play well and beat good teams. Hopefully the Lakers can build on this as they head into Sunday in another matchup with the Spurs (and a still red hot Ginobili). But that’s Sunday. Tonight I go to bed happy with thoughts of win #55 on my mind.