Phil was rocking designer sandals with socks tonight and I still can’t watch a game in Vegas without thinking of Kobe’s prophetic dunk in a pre-season game there over a decade ago. More importantly, though, the Lakers are finally starting to resemble the team that has won consecutive titles, defeating Sacramento 98-95 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close. A few observations…
* After a sloppy two games in Europe, the coaching staff stressed effort and continuity in the practices leading up to tonight’s game. The Lakers’ response: energy and activity right out of the gates. Aside from a few lapses to close quarters, L.A. consistently played with active hands on defense, chipping balls away from Kings players underneath the hoop and patrolling the passing lanes for eight steals on the night, resulting in a total of 18 turnovers for Sacto. Lamar Odom, in particular, was in mid-season form, as pointed out by Stu Lantz, grabbing two steals to go with seven points, nine rebounds and six assists. It was yet another classic example of Odom affecting the game without necessarily filling up the stat sheet, though, as he regularly controlled the flow of the game on both ends of the floor during the first half.
* In stretches, the Lakers arguably played with more fluidity on offense than they did in their first two pre-season games combined. Twenty-six assists on 36 field goals (44% shooting) is a vast improvement over their previous game against Barcelona when L.A. only managed 14 assists on 29 made field goals. Steve Blake only scored three points in 22 minutes of play, but dealt out five assists on zero turnovers, while continuing to show exceptional triangle aptitude for it only being his third game with the forum blue and gold. Matt Barnes also looked much more comfortable out there against the soft Kings defense, showing his full arsenal of moves during a brief stretch in the second quarter when he made an outstanding catch-and-twist move for a bucket and an even better pass to Caracter underneath the hoop. Even though I felt like the Lakers over-passed a bit early on in the first half, I liked the way that all 13 players who stepped foot on the court tonight made a conscious effort to get everyone involved.
* The Lakers didn’t play consistent defense for all 48 minutes, but they certainly showed in spurts why they have all the makings of being a stellar defensive team this year. As Darius pointed out in his pre-game preview, L.A. had been lazy with their rotations and closeouts through two games. After trailing by a point at halftime and losing the rebounding battle by three, Jackson and the coaching staff stressed increased focus on D and his team answered in the third quarter, holding the Kings to only 12 points. By the end of the game, the Lakers evened them up on rebounds—beating them 17-14 on offensive boards—led by Pau’s 12. L.A.’s increased activity didn’t go unnoticed by the officials, though, as they allowed Sacramento to shoot 43 free throws, compared to only 30 for the home team. That may fly during the pre-season, but come Oct. 26, they’ll need to refine that aspect of their game.
* Ron Artest was dropping bombs all night, connecting on 4-5 from beyond the arc (7-11 overall) on his way to tying Gasol for the team lead with 18 points. More encouraging, though, was the fact that #15 looked entirely comfortable doing so, smoothly moving through the Lakers’ half court sets, often finding himself in the perfect position to nail a wide-open J. While his learning curve in the triangle seemingly lasted all of last season, the strong offensive awareness displayed tonight by Ron bodes well for 2010-11. You really get the sense that Artest took his clutch performances in the final two rounds of last year’s playoffs to heart; no longer is he the lost puppy looking for the Lakers to take him in. L.A. is his home now and he’s ready to go to work for the Lakers.
* Shannon Brown got a bit ball hungry when he first entered the game, but once he started allowing the offense to come to him more in the second half, he provided exactly the type of spark the Lakers are looking for him to create off the bench this season. His 17 points, including an explosive dunk attempt in the second half that nearly brought the house down, helped the Lakers during a 16-4 run in the middle of the third and another 12-1 run to end the quarter. His four turnovers are something he’ll need to watch out for, though.
* Tyreke Evans wasn’t his usual self, whether a product of Fisher, Blake and Sashas’ pesky defense or just the result of a poor shooting night (4-14). Rookie DeMarcus Cousins shook off a shaky first half to become a difference maker in the second, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, at times showing flashes of why the Kings are so hopeful about his future in the NBA. Carl Landry, undersized as he may at power forward, is quickly moving up the list of players who just always seem to find a way to play well against the Lakers. The former Rocket had his way for most of the night, scoring a game-high 23 points, while nabbing eight boards.
* There was a Devin Ebanks sighting in the desert tonight and if he keeps playing with a high level of activity on the floor, he might just weasel his way into an extra minute or two of burn during the regular season. Ebanks didn’t just look like Trevor Ariza’s doppelgänger tonight, but acted like the former forward too, scoring 10 points on 4-9 shooting, while at times setting the tone for his unit with excellent energy around the hoop.
* The starting line-up played almost the first eight minutes of the game before Barnes checked in for Lamar, giving the Lakers a brief look at their potential three-headed defensive monster in Matt, Kobe and Ron. Can’t wait to hopefully see more of this as match-ups allow and the season progresses. Speaking of Kobe—whose 19 minutes were pretty consistent with Coach Jackson’s pre-game expectations—#24 finally looked like he had his legs under him a bit, even if his 2-10 shooting and seven points say otherwise. He showed decent elevation on his shots and was involved in the Lakers’ team-centric attack early on in the first quarter. He’s not the Kobe of old yet, but he’s slowly, but surely getting there, as are the defending champs. Next up are Melo—for now—and the Nuggets this Saturday. Excited to see some small steps taken tonight? Chime in below.