There will be times that a team just doesn’t have its best game. Passes that are typically made crisply get deflected; defensive instincts are slow and how a defender moves seems a half-second behind what the offensive player is thinking and doing; defensive rebounds that are normally grabbed get tipped away or are mistimed, allowing the other team to grab them. Last night the Lakers had one of those games. And they still won, defeating the Raptors 108-103 in a game that most (including me) thought wouldn’t be that close. But, this is why the games are played on the hardwood and not on paper and why that town in Nevada (I think you know the one I speak of) does pretty well for itself. The games don’t always go as we think they should.
And in the case of last night’s game, I think that had a lot more to do with what the Raptors were doing than what the Lakers were not. Early on this season if there are two aspects of the game that the Lakers have struggled with it’s containing teams that race out in transition and containing the defensive glass. Last night, the Raptors tried to take advantage of both and it nearly got them a win. On nearly every single possession, whether off a missed or made basket by the Lakers, the Raptors jammed the ball down the Lakers throats in hopes of getting an easy basket. Every single Raptor ball handler was pushing the ball as much as possible to try and avoid facing a set Lakers D. This led to easy lay ups, and ultimately, an offensive rhythm for Toronto that was difficult to break.
And then there were the issues the Lakers were having on the backboards. In the preview for this game I wrote that: “the Lakers have enormous size advantages over the Raps, but Reggie Evans is an aggressive rebounder who chases every loose ball. If the Lakers are lax in chasing down long rebounds or don’t box out, they will allow the extra possessions that can make this game closer than it need be.” Not to say that I told you so, but that’s exactly what we saw last night. The Raptors corralled 19 offensive rebounds and ended up taking 10 more shots than the Lakers even though LA forced 21 turnovers. Early in the game some of those offensive rebounds were the result of some ugly misses that skipped off the rim awkwardly or didn’t draw iron at all. In the first quarter alone I counted three shots that either airballed or skidded off the rim in a manner where giving up the offensive rebound is almost expected. However, throughout the rest of the game I’d say that a lot of the extra possessions that the Raps gained were the results of the Lakers wings giving up penetration, forcing the Lakers bigs to help, which had them forfeiting their rebounding position. And Toronto took full advantage of the real estate under the rim by grabbing the board.
But, in the end, dominating the backboards and getting transition baskets just weren’t enough for the Raptors to get a W. The Lakers still do plenty of things well and last night was no exception. As mentioned earlier, the Lakers forced 21 Raptor miscues. Fisher, Kobe, Barnes, and Artest were active in the passing lanes and did a good job of pressuring ball handlers – pressure that actually led to some of the penetration angles utilized by the Raps to get to the hoop, but I digress. This defensive pressure and activity in the passing lanes led to steals that the Lakers took the other way for easy buckets, scoring 25 points off Toronto turnovers.
Offensively, the Lakers continued to play strong ball by taking advantage of the mismatches that existed. Gasol and Kobe combined for 53 points on 34 shots and made 17 of their 18 FT attempts. Pau showed excellent touch on a variety of face up and turn around jumpers that Toronto’s defenders struggled to contest and Kobe was precise with where he set up on the court to maximize his ability to score and set up his teammates (6 assists for #24 on the night.)
The other two players that really played well on offense were the point guard duo of Fisher and Blake. I can’t say this enough but what was seemingly the biggest weakness for the Lakers last year has been anything but early this season. Fisher made 4 of his 7 attempts on the night (1-1 from three point land) including a big jumper with less than 3 minutes in the game when the contest was still in the balance. As for Blake, when Fish had to go to the bench with early foul trouble, Steve came in aggressive on offense and accurate on his jumper by nailing his first 4 shots (all of which were 3 pointers) to push the Lakers lead to double digits in the final 6 minutes of the 1st quarter. Both of these guys had very solid games and were major contributors once again. Really, it’s like night and day when comparing last year’s PG’s to this year’s group.
Continuing on the offensive theme, the Lakers went away from the P&R heavy attack they showed in Sacramento and operated more from their base Triangle sets where ball and player movement led to good looks on most possessions. The Lakers ended the night with a very good offensive efficiency of 114.1 and executed well, albeit against a mediocre defensive team.
So, the Lakers are now 6-0 and while there are things to be concerned about, I don’t think anyone can complain about the unblemished record to start the year. Yes, I’d like for the defense to be more stout but when Bynum returns to re-form the twin towers in the middle and shore up the Lakers’ big man rotation I expect to see a difference on that side of the ball. Mind you, getting Bynum back won’t be a cure all but it’s big part of the overall remedy. But until that actually occurs, I’m okay with where the Lakers are. More than okay really. They’re playing to their strengths as a team and as individuals. There are times where there are still miscommunications, where an errant cut leads to a turnover or a gamble on the perimeter turns into a lay up for the other side. But in the end, wasn’t some of that to be expected from a team that’s integrating new players while still missing their starting Center? So again, I’m feeling very good about where this team is. Remember every win won’t be pretty and some games that we’d all like (or expect) to be blowouts just won’t end up that way. But as long as the wins keep coming, I’ll sleep easy. All wins may not be created equal, but they all count the same at this stage of the season.