In a game that meant everything for making up ground in the West, the Lakers gave it everything they had, defeating Dallas 96-91. Led by one of Andrew Bynum’s best — and most timely — performances of the season, L.A. effectively controlled the tempo for most of the game’s 48 minutes. Bynum was a beast on both ends of the floor, scoring 22 points, including several aggressive moves in the painted area, while also reeling in 15 rebounds. We’ve been saying it for several games now, but he’s truly been a different player altogether since the All-Star break and one who dramatically increases the Lakers’ hopes for a third straight championship. As he said himself after the game, Andrew is heeding Coach Jackson’s longstanding order to focus on defense and rebounding. To that end, he grabbed rebounds with authority and provided an invaluable last line of defense against a deep Mavericks team. In the process, he dominated Tyson Chandler, a player who was brought onboard specifically to defend the likes of Bynum and Gasol.
Andrew was far from the only Laker responsible for tonight’s huge road victory; this was a true team effort from start to finish and especially so after Kobe sat out extended minutes after injuring his ankle. Steve Blake sprung to life at the most opportune time for L.A., showing the entire arsenal of skills that the Lakers were so attracted to when they signed him last summer. As Darius has written before, Blake’s ability to run the offense hasn’t really been his problem this season — in fact he’s done so quite adeptly for a first year guard in the triangle. Instead, he’s mostly struggled with finding his own niche on offense. Tonight, he finally put all the pieces together, scoring nine points and dishing out five dimes in 27 minutes.
This was the type of game where everyone who stepped foot on the floor contributed to the ultimate outcome. Ron Artest continued his improved play, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight boards, including a dagger offensive board and put-back with under a minute remaining. That a pivotal offensive rebound provided arguably the game’s most important moment was somewhat ironic considering the Mavs held an advantage on the glass all night long (48 to 43 rebounding edge). Whether it was Gasol hitting a clutch free throw, Lamar attacking the hoop or Barnes generally annoying the entire Dallas roster, all nine players stepped up big when they needed to most. They did it with energy on defense too, refusing to allow anyone other than Nowitzki and Marion to get going. Even Jason Terry, usually a Lakers killer, only managed 13 points.
Unlike the game against Miami, the Lakers also came up with all of the critical plays in the final minutes of the game, despite letting the Mavs back into it after riding a deceptively comfortable six to nine point lead for most of the fourth quarter. It’s not like the team really had much say in the matter either with Bryant — who scored 16 points on a subpar 6-20 from the field — relegated to the sidelines for part of the game’s key stretch. Barring a more serious injury, that’s not a situation that’s likely to happen often in the playoffs, but should still give the Lakers not named Kobe a great deal of confidence moving forward.
Ultimately, tonight’s win was about the Lakers setting a goal and delivering. They’re not quite in championship form just yet (see: missed free throws and rebound attempts), but this is a far cry from the team we saw from November to February. And if this game foreshadowed what we can expect in a likely second round series against the Mavericks, we’re in for a real doozy.