When the Lakers decide that they’re going to take an opponent seriously by focusing on both ends of the court and executing at a high level they’re nearly impossible to defeat. Tonight, the Pacers found that out as the Lakers rolled into Indiana with revenge on their mind (if you believe Matt Barnes) and beat up the Pacers 109-94 to win their third straight game and their second in two nights.
Really, this game was domination from the outset. The Lakers were extending their defense and pressuring the ball well beyond the three point line and offensively they attacked the Pacers’ with precise execution that would make Tex Winter smile. Every time a Pacer touched the ball a Laker defender was up in his chest with active hands trying to deflect a pass or force him into a mistake. And in the early going it worked to perfection as the Pacers turned the ball over on half of their first six possessions. Those turnovers allowed the Lakers to either attack quickly in the other direction or set up their offense to against a Pacer D that would struggle all night with the Lakers execution.
Early on, it was Artest and Gasol that would do the most damage. Ron started out making his first three shots from the field and really seemed to have a comfort level in how he was going to get his shots against Indy. He worked well off pin-down screens and moved well off the ball to get open near the top of the key where he took his jumper with his feet set and without hesitation. He also turned an early first quarter steal into a breakaway lay in that only seemed to get him more in a zone on both ends of the floor.
And then there was Gasol, who really looked determined to make up for his sub-par effort from the last time these two teams met. Pau found his rhythm early and showed us once again how complete an offensive player he can be. He nailed a variety of jumpers from all over the court and also did major damage from the post with jump hooks and up and under moves where he either got the bucket or earned a trip to the foul line. On one impressive first half play Gasol took a pass on the right wing, faced up, and then blew by Hibbert for a dunk where he took the ball in one hand and finished on the other side of the hoop. In the first half, Gasol had a smooth and easy 21 points and would end the game with 28 on only 17 shots from the field. And when he wasn’t scoring himself, Pau was doing a great job of exhibiting patience with the ball by waiting for plays to develop and then hitting his mates in position where they could get easy baskets.
In the second half, it would be Kobe’s turn to dominate on offense. After letting his mates have all the fun in the first 24 minutes (and playing distributor to get them going), Kobe went off in the final two quarters giving the Indiana fans a show that they’d remember. Doing most of his damage from the outside, Kobe knocked down jumper after jumper to sound of oohs and ahs from the road crowd. At one point he nailed two deep three pointers and back heeled a third from 27 feet that was straight as an arrow but just long. Kobe finished with 31 points of his own on only 18 shots and on the strength of his play making first half also had 6 assists on the evening. All you have to do is look at his highlights from the night and you can see that he was in some kind of zone with his jumper while also displaying the fantastic footwork that also makes him so special.
But, as much as this game was about the Lakers tremendous execution on offense it was just was much about how they turned up their defensive intensity. In the first half especially, the Lakers’ ability to pressure the ball while also defending the paint was a sight to see. Whether from the wing or in the paint, nearly every Pacer shot was contested. The Lakers were getting their hands in the passing lanes, causing deflections, or just forcing the Pacers to make bad passes that ended up in the stands rather than in a teammate’s hands. There may have been a better defensive half this year, but I’m coming up blank when remembering it as the Lakers held Indiana to 37 first half points and an offensive efficiency of 84.1.
The real takeaway from this game, though, is that the Lakers may be finding their stride again. For the first time all season they’ve got their full 9 man rotation available and when you add in Luke and the rookies it’s a complete team before you even bring back Ratliff or add Joe Smith to the mix. The return of Bynum has meant that Gasol’s fresher than he’s been since the opening two weeks of the season and with big ‘Drew coming off the bench Odom has also maintained a good rhythm to his game. You add to this a more efficient Kobe (his 31 points on 18 shots tonight comes after 24 points on 13 shots and 34 points on 19 shots in his last two games) and you have the makings of a Laker team that is starting to get on another roll. Obviously the level of competition isn’t the greatest, but that was the case when the Lakers were barely squeaking out wins in recent weeks too. Things are definitely looking up for the Lakers and while other teams are playing well too, we may just be seeing the start of another push that reminds the rest of the league who the reigning champs are.