As the title of this post implies (and the video above shows), Pau Gasol got to play hero in this game. With the Lakers trailing by one point and with possession of the ball, Kobe Bryant was isolated on the extended right wing. Every other Laker was cleared to the left side of the floor watching #24 dribble down the clock in anticipation of Kobe trying to do provide another winning moment for this team with a last second shot. As clock ticked down from 7…6…5…Kobe dribbled to his right hand to shoot one of his patented fade away jumpers along the baseline. As the ball released from his fingertips, everyone stared thinking that he’d do it again. Everyone but Pau Gasol, who slithered his way into offensive rebounding position. So as Kobe’s shot rattled off the rim and then the backboard, the Big Spaniard secured the ball and in one motion put the ball back into the basket to secure a Lakers win and a place in the 2nd round.
But this game was so much more than just Gasol’s work on the glass on a single play. How about his 18 rebounds overall? On a night where he couldn’t get his offense going (only 9 points on 11 shots), Pau found other ways to help this team contributing with his aforementioned 18 rebounds to go along with 3 assists and 2 blocks (along with many other contested shots in the paint). This wasn’t Pau’s best night as a Laker (game winner aside), but he again showed his value to this team as he continued to work hard and make the right play time and time again. How about a vintage night from Kobe Bryant, who – on a night where many of his teammates didn’t have their offensive game going – came huge with 32 points on 25 shots.
And Pau’s other front court mates put in their work as well. Bynum, playing through a hyper-extended knee (more on that later) didn’t have a big statistical night (6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal in 26 minutes) but he was again a presence in the paint for the Lakers. He occupied space, contested shots, took a couple of hard fouls, and did the job that was needed of him in his minutes. And, like I mentioned, he did it all on a balky knee that got injured at some point in the first half. But instead of heading the trainers room, Bynum gutted it out and stayed on the court to help his team. In the past, some have questioned Andrew’s commitment and love of this game, but on a night where he’s limping around and still hustling back on D, I think those critics should now be silent. (As an aside, after the game he said that this is one of those things that doesn’t seem that bad and that he thinks he can play through it. But, Bynum has an MRI scheduled for tomorrow to see where he’s at.) And with Bynum a bit banged up, it gave Odom a chance for some extended run. And boy, did he take advantage. Like Bynum, the boxscore really doesn’t do Odom justice. Down the stretch of this game, LO came up big grabbing multiple rebounds and protecting the rim like at no other point during the series. The quintessential sequence for me came with the Lakers trailing by one point and 1:50 left in the game. Russell Westbrook just airballed an 18 footer and Nick Collison judged the ball perfectly to grab the offensive rebound. But when Collison went up with his shot, LO came from the weak side, blocked the shot, and then secured the loose ball before it could go out of bounds. Just a fantastic play for Odom and at a time where the Lakers needed a stop.
But, the star of this game was Kobe Bryant. Questioned throughout this series as being too banged up to be the impact player that we’re been accustomed to seeing and aging right before our eyes, Kobe had one of those games. After starting out slowly and only making 3 of his first 11 shots, Kobe suddenly got hot and found his groove. Whether he was attempting 3 pointers, left handed runners, or tough fade away jumpers, Kobe couldn’t miss. In the third quarter alone, he scored 16 points on a variety of shots that kept the OKC crowd quiet and his teammates on the bench jumping up and cheering him on. It was a vintage Mamba performance and again showed everyone that in a clinching game in the most hostile of environments, Kobe could still go for the jugular with the best of them. Kobe finished the night with 32 points on 25 shots and chipped in 7 rebounds and 3 assists for good measure. In the past two games he controlled contests by playing the facilitator and by carrying the scoring load. Surely the extra rest that he’s been afforded before games 5 and 6 helped him, but we should again just show extreme thanks for having this wonderful player on the team that we root for.
So here we are. The Lakers have now advanced to the second round for the third consecutive year and are 25% of the way to their final goal. But there is no rest for the weary. Just as the Lakers punched their ticket to the second round, so did the Jazz. Game one is already scheduled for Sunday afternoon. So, the Lakers have to fly home tonight and instantly start preparing for a hot Jazz team that just dispatched the Nuggets – only the team that many thought was the 2nd best team in the West all season. A new challenge awaits the Lakers, but I don’t think this group would have it any other way. Kobe has already said that they’ll be ready, and I know that we’ll all be right there watching.
A couple other notes from this game and series:
*After this game ended, like every other Lakers fan, I was cheering. However, I wasn’t just clapping for our guys, I was also cheering for the Thunder. Standing ovation for these guys. What a great young team with a fantastic group of fans. I really can’t say enough about this group of guys and the folks that cheer them on. They’ve got a great young nucleus in Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Harden and some very good role players in Thabo, Green, and Collison. If they can find a low post presence and some of their players can continue to improve, this team will be a perennial power. I know that Portland has some great young players, but OKC may have stolen the crown as the up and coming team in this league. Watch out world, the Thunder have arrived and I don’t think they’re going anywhere but up.
*I don’t know if he can keep it up, but Derek Fisher had one hell of a series on offense. Sure, he only averaged 10 points a game, but he shot 46.7% from three point country (14-30). You throw in his 3 assists a game (including a team high 6 in the clincher) and this guy stepped up his game against OKC. Like I said, I don’t know if he can keep it up, but before the playoffs started I said that I hoped he had one more run in him and so far, so good.
*Game 6 showed a re-emergence of the Lakers bench. During the 2nd and 4th quarters, Phil went to a bench dominant unit and both times the group of Farmar, Shannon, Walton, and Odom stepped up and performed well. During the 4th quarter, Phil (much to the chagrin of many fans) sat Kobe for an extended period and let this group play. Well, they rewarded Phil’s faith in them by keeping the lead in the 6-7 point range and allowed Kobe those few extra minutes of rest that his legs likely needed. And they all performed well too. As a foursome they combined for 28 points on 19 shots while collecting 11 rebounds and 8 assists. I already mentioned Odom, but special recognition needs to go Shannon for his excellent shooting in relief of Kobe. WOW has 11 of those 28 bench points and got them on only 5 shots (sinking both of his three pointers). Shannon went without that cursed wrap on his thumb for the first time in weeks and I think it showed in the comfort level he had on his jumper tonight.
*Lastly, I must praise Ron Artest (again) for his defense on Kevin Durant throughout this series. KD is one of the best young players in this game and surely one of (if not) the NBA’s best scorers. But for the series, Durant shot 38% from the field (27% on threes) and averaged a shade over 4 turnovers a game. If not for his ability to get to the FT line (9 FTA, 8 makes) his scoring numbers wouldn’t have been close to his 24.8 ppg – which is already down over 5 points from his regular season average. In game 6, while missing some shots that he would normally make, Durant only made 5 of his 23 attempts from the field and needed 15 FT attempts to get to his 25 points. That said, even though KD was well off his game, he still made some big shots (including a three pointer late that brought OKC to within 4 and then later a layup that put them up 3) in this game and he showed his quiet determination that will surely carry him to extreme heights over the course of his long career.