Over the past few days, I’ve questioned when this Lakers team was actually going to play like the season starts next week. It turns out, Thursday night was that night as the Lakers pulled away from the Warriors in the 2nd half to win going away 120-99. It was a strong showing all around as every Laker that saw action either played very well or had more redeeming moments than forgettable ones. And while it would have been good to have Kobe actually see some game action and join the fun, it was actually very nice to see the rest of the team play focussed ball without #24 and indicate that they are, indeed, ready for the games to count.
Since there were so many positive things to take place in this game, rather than list them all, here are a few things that stood out to me and a couple of other random thoughts from this game:
*The Lakers bench is going to win this team some games this year. In the past two contests they’ve played excellent ball and against the Warriors it was a group that rotated Blake, Barnes, Artest, Odom, Gasol, and Ratliff that really blew this game open at the end of the 3rd and start of the 4th quarter. This combo of guys played good defense, rebounded the ball, and played strong offense in both transition and the half court. Led by Steve Blake’s fantastic shooting (8-10 from the floor) and strong decision making (7 assists, 1 turnover) the bench exploited every crack in the Warriors’ schemes and turned a close game into a blowout. When Barnes checked in for Odom with 3:39 left in the 3rd, the Lakers led by one. After Shannon hit a shot at the buzzer to end the period, they led by 10. Blake, Odom, Shannon, Ratliff, and Barnes pushed the lead to 16 with 8 and half minutes left in the game and the rout was officially on. Over the past two seasons the Lakers bench had a stronger reputation (built on the exploits of the 2008 group) than was likely deserved. Only in the the most recent championship run where Phil routinely played 7 or 8 players did the national pundits finally catch on to the fact that the Lakers weren’t “one of the deepest teams in the league” as they’d claimed for nearly 2 seasons. This year, after Bynum returns and Odom likely moves back to the bench, the Lakers reserves will once again earn that praise. I certainly don’t want to over react to a couple of good games. But tonight showed what this group is capable of and if they can make some shots they’ll be very tough to beat because their defense will be much improved over last year and their offense will be much more controlled.
*Lamar Odom didn’t shoot that well tonight as he only hit 5 of his 16 shots from the field. However, even on a poor shooting night he ended up with 16 points and was his usual self on the glass collecting 12 rebounds (4 offensive). It’s been a stellar pre-season for Odom and if he’s able to even be 80% as consistent as he’s shown during LA’s exhibition games the Lakers are going to be very, very difficult to beat in any scenario.
*Theo Ratliff makes a difference on defense. Tonight he played 22 minutes and didn’t score a single point and I couldn’t care less because of all the little things he does on D. When guarding lighter framed players in the post (like Biedrins or Wright) he does a good job of pushing them off their sweet spots and making their shots uncomfortable. When helping on penetration, he times his block attempts in a way that forces low percentage floaters or awkward flip shots. When players do earn good position against him he uses excellent timing to disrupt point blank shots to cause misses. Sure, he’s going to give up some offensive rebounds (just like Mbenga did) because he challenges a lot of shots and allows the man he’s guarding to slip in and grab some rebounds. But he’s also going to block a fair amount of shots (he had 2 tonight) and force misses that would normally be makes. By no means to I think Theo is a world beater. And I’m in no way clamoring for him to play more than a handful of minutes a night (if at all) when Bynum is back healthy. But, it’s been a while since the Lakers have had a very good shot blocker (and not just a guy that blocks shots – there is a difference). Theo is a shot blocker.
*Even though he only played 11 minutes and was the only Laker with a negative plus/minus (-7) on the night, I was good to see Luke Walton back playing. Bill’s son had 5 points, 2 assists, and a rebound in his limited run but looked comfortable in the offense (as is to be expected) but more importantly moved well and looked healthy.
*On the Warriors side, it will be interesting to see how this team develops. Monta Ellis got in early foul trouble and never found his rhythm so tonight is not an accurate assessment of how he’ll play during the season. And while Steph Curry had some moments, he was not efficient and ended up with a tweaked ankle by the time the game was over. But overall, the one thing that stood out to me is that the Warriors lacked some of the quality depth that really could have helped this team. Yes, David Lee is a good player and I think he’s a guy that will play hard and put up good numbers. But by trading three quality players for him the Dubs dumped a fair amount of depth that possessed a variety of skills for a single player that, while talented, will not do everything that the players given up for him could do. Plus by trading Anthony Morrow and losing Corey Maggette and Anthony Tolliver, the W’s also lost capable scoring and only have Gadzurich and Charlie Bell (who did not play) to show for those losses. Essentially, the Warriors lost some guys that can contribute and didn’t really replace them with guys that could fill all those roles. Don’t get me wrong, I like Dorell Wright and Jeremy Lin. But, they’re not as good as some of the guys that were on this team last year (a team decimated by injuries, by the way) and it shows. Now, they will have to do more with less and I’m not sure if they’ll be able to. Not with an injured lottery pick and Lou Amundson now injured with dislocated finger on his strong hand. Looks like it will be tough sledding for the Warriors again this season. And while that’s par for the course for this franchise, they are a team that I’d like to see be successful. As I mentioned in the game preview, I think their fans deserve it.