Needless to say, we’ve been waiting for a night like this since last week (though it feels like much longer). The Lakers played smart, focused basketball and took down the Hornets 103-88 to end their three game slide and regain some of the mojo that’s been lost of late. This isn’t to say that the Lakers are all the way back, but this was a nice first step towards finding their stride after stumbling along in so recent many games.
When you have a dominating performance like the Lakers had, there’s usually many reasons for it and it’s tough to pinpoint one (or even two) reasons why. And in pouring over the boxscore, this game would seem to be no different as the Lakers controlled the game statistically in many key areas. But, for me, it’s easy to find the key to the game and what changed from recent contests: the Lakers went back to last year’s formula of big man dominance.
In a departure from what Phil and the coaches had been saying since his return, Bynum was unexpectedly placed in the starting lineup and his presence immediately paid dividends. Big ‘Drew clogged the defensive paint, altered shots when involved in screen and rolls, and overall just provided very good activity on the defensive end. But beyond just being big and active on D, he was effective on offense by providing the Lakers with another primary post up option. Bynum scored 18 points on a variety of straight post ups and interior finishes after teammate penetration. Several times he worked hard to get deep position and again showed that there’s little substitute for sheer size as he easily finished over the top of the Hornets after making catches off passes thrown at rim level.
The other benefit of Bynum’s presence was the proper slotting of the other Laker big men. Playing a lot of PF, Gasol found his groove again on offense. Able to more freely slide around the court and not have to consistently bang in the post, Pau found creases in the Hornets’ defense to get off a handful of good shots and earn trips to the FT line. The big Spaniard may have only finished with 11 points, but he did it on just 5 shots from the field and looked as fresh as he has in weeks when he drove to the hoop for his rolling hook or cut from the weak side to receive a pass.
But while Bynum was an anchor with Pau complementing him wonderfully, the star of the front court was Lamar Odom. In past years, it’s been no secret that when Odom plays well the Lakers become nearly unbeatable. This year, with Bynum out, that became less true because LO’s contributions as a starter became more of a necessity than a luxury as the Lakers have needed him to perform to be competitive night in and night out. Tonight, though, LO was able to slide back into his natural role of super sixth man and take over the game from a reserve role. Odom came off the pine and didn’t miss a beat, leading the Lakers in scoring with 24 points (on only 15 shots) and sporting a +20 in plus/minus for the game. Odom simply did everything on offense and flashed the brilliance of his all-around game as he knocked down a three, drove for easy finishes, posted up, and gobbled up offensive rebounds for put backs. He even had the highlight of the night with a fast break play where he went behind his back, finger rolled a ball that back ironed, and then followed his own miss with a tip jam.
Not to be left out, the Lakers guards also played well. A night after taking on the heavy lifting and firing up a lot of shots, Kobe let the offense come to him scoring a relatively easy 20 points on only 14 attempts from the field. Several times he drew in the defense only to make a great pass that may not have been an assist, but rather the pass the set up the sequence that led to the basket. Derek Fisher also played a very controlled game to very good results. Fish rarely forced a play the entire night and ended the night making 4 of his 6 shots (9 points) and led the team in assists with 8 dimes. He consistently made the right reads and often times penetrated the D with the expressed purpose of setting up a teammate.
This game wasn’t just about the individual play put forth by key players. This was a team effort that reminded us of how good the Lakers can be when they get back to doing the little things well on both sides of the ball. Defensively the Lakers were much more active. The lack of outside shooting by the Hornets allowed the Laker wings to dig down on the post and better close off driving lanes by helping off their men. When the ball did rotate back out to the perimeter, the Lakers generally closed out well and contested shots (though they were better contesting mid range jumpers than they were the long ball). Even though Chris Paul was able to get his numbers (20 points, 7 assists), he never seemed like he was going to take over the game. I thought the Lakers did a pretty good job of making his life hard by battling him for the real estate he wanted to get to and contesting once he got there, limiting his ability to be both a scorer and distributor. And while David West was bothered by a first half ankle sprain, the Lakers also did a good job of making him work to get his shots and making him shoot contested jumpers while limiting his post chances with the aforementioned dig downs by wings. So from a team wide perspective, I thought the Lakers executed the defensive game plan very well, and it showed up statistically as they held the Hornets to 41.8% shooting and then cleaned up the glass, limiting the Hornets to 6 offensive rebounds on their 46 missed field goals.
Offensively, the Lakers were also much more crisp than they’ve been in long while. The ball moved freely from one side of the court to the other. The better ball movement meant that post ups were more easily set up as the Hornets were caught in the paint showing help on the strong side, only to have a ball reversal give the Laker’ big men easy inside position as they pinned their men. There was no better example of this than on a play where Kobe had the ball on the right wing and after drawing the defense in while backing his man down, he skipped the ball to D-Fish on the other side of the court who then touch passed the ball to Bynum, who was 4 feet from the hoop getting rebounding position on Kobe’s original set up for a shot. This entire sequence of the ball switching sides and Bynum getting a lay-in took all of 3-4 seconds and exemplified the greater commitment to ball and player movement that’s been lacking. There’s a reason that the Lakers shot 58.6% from the floor even though they only made 5 of their 17 three pointers (29.4%). They got the ball inside by being (mostly) patient, playing together, and working the offense.
This game wasn’t all positives, though. The Lakers, at times, were pretty careless with the ball and committed 20 turnovers on the night. Kobe alone had 7 miscues, mostly of the ball handling and offensive foul variety. Matt Barnes had a late game ejection after he pushed a Hornet to the ground after committing a turnover of his own. In the end though, these were relatively minor transgressions when looking at the big picture. When you win by double digits and control the game from the opening tip to the closing whistle, it’s always a good night. And when that type of performance comes on the heels of several consecutive stinkers, it’s even better. I’m in no way ready to say that this game has the Lakers back to where they need to be, but it’s a great first step and that’s really all I was looking for before this game started. Now, the work of building on this performance begins.