Yes, the Lakers beat the Timberwolves. They outlasted visiting ‘Wolves 106-98 to up their post all-star record to 11-1. And when you combine the Lakers’ win with losses by the Mavs, Celtics, and Bulls the Lakers were able to gain ground in the playoff standings taking a full one game lead for sole possession of 2nd place in the West while also picking up a game on teams in the East that were ahead of them in the standings. Looking at the game from this perspective, this was a good game that has yielded some positive results for the Lakers.
That said, this wasn’t that pleasant a game to watch. A brief rundown of the negatives before we get back to the good stuff:
*Kobe shot only 6-17 and was almost completely ineffective in the first half. If not for two late three pointers in the closing minutes of the 2nd quarter and some solid passing early in the game, Kobe was completely shut down by the long and athletic Wesley Johnson. Kobe relied to heavily on wing isolations early on but struggled to get clean looks against the strong contests of the Wolves’ rookie. And while Kobe recovered in the 2nd half to knock down shots, get to the FT line, and ultimately have a positive impact on the game he didn’t come out of the game unscathed, hurting his neck in a collision with Martell Webster and seething in the locker room after the game.
*Besides Kobe’s general struggles, the rest of the team also had a general sloppiness to it. The team committed 16 turnovers on the night which directly led to 18 Minnesota points. The Lakers also surrendered 17 offensive boards and lost the overall rebounding battle. And considering that going into this game the two aspects of the contest that the Lakers needed to control were the pace of the game and their defensive glass, I’d say playing poorly in these specific areas really helped the ‘Wolves hang around.
*For all the praise he’s gotten lately, Andrew Bynum now deserves some scorn. After being frustrated by the lack of a whistle on a couple of his offensive moves and dealing with some general fatigue after playing the first 16 minutes of the 2nd half, Bynum committed a flagrant 2 foul and got ejected from this game. The foul occurred when Michael Beasley drove baseline, elevated to attack the rim, and Andrew Bynum jumped into him shoulder first and simply laid him out. While I appreciate Bynum’s aggression in wanting to challenge the shot, he made no visible play on the ball and the foul was simply reckless. To the credit of Rambis and Beasley, they both shook off the play after the game and commented that it was just a hard foul and left it at that. But watching from home I was able to view the play multiple times over and I thought the play was overly aggressive and in many ways needlessly dangerous. Beyond the danger though, situationally the play was truly bad. At the time of the foul the game was tied and Bynum was having a major impact on the contest. To that point he had 10 points and 14 rebounds and was controlling the paint. To commit a foul and risk being ejected (which he was) put his team in real jeopardy to lose the game.
For all the above hand wringing however, the Lakers didn’t play all that poorly and there were several good aspects to this game that deserve recognition.
*The bench really did play well. Led by Steve Blake, the 2nd unit really helped settle the game down and got the Lakers back on track to win this game. Early on the Lakers found themselves down by 11 but Blake came in, ran the Lakers sets, hit a three, and at the end of the 1st quarter they would only trail by 6. Over the course of the rest of the game, Blake would hit a couple of other shots ending the night with 9 points on 3-4 shooting including making both of his three point attempts. Plus, as has been the case lately, Blake also played very good D, hustling around the court and doing a very good job of limiting his man’s penetration. Besides Blake, though, Barnes, Odom, and Shannon also did well in this game too. Barnes was especially active and probably had his best game since returning from his knee surgery. He chipped in 9 points, grabbed a couple of rebounds, and also added two steals. He ran the floor well and provided his usual heady play by slashing when needed and spacing the floor for the bigs when the got the ball in the post. As for Brown, he had some of his typical defensive lapses (he gambled for steals too often and shot the gaps on passes that he had no business going for) but did shoot the ball well scoring 13 points on only 8 shots. Plus, when Kobe was delayed coming out of the locker room to start the 2nd half, Shannon started the 3rd quarter with 2 made three pointers that truly helped LA start to find a needed groove on offense.
*Pau Gasol was a monster on offense. He made 12 of his 17 shots and scored a team high 25 points. As has been the case for what seems like months, his jumper was silky and he did damage against every defender that the ‘Wolves through at him. Realistically, Pau should have gotten the ball more and easily could have gone for over 30 points had the Lakers simply looked for him more in the 2nd half and used him as a closer. I’d have liked for Pau to be a little less loose with the ball (5 TO’s on the night) and for his rebounding numbers to be better (another contest with only 5 boards) but overall he played well. His defense was solid (4 blocks) and he held his own on the perimeter as the Lakers often found themselves needing to switch screens on the wing with Pau finding himself on an island against Ridnour or Beasley or Webster.
*The Lakers outside shooting was also good tonight. They made 8 of their 19 attempts from deep and all them were timely. I mentioned Kobe and Shannon’s two, but Blake also hit two (one a bailout three after Kobe gave him the ball with 3 seconds left on the shot clock), and Odom hit a big three down the stretch that pushed the Lakers lead up to 6 with only 2:32 left in the game. I’ve often said that when the Lakers make their threes they’re a very difficult team to beat and tonight that was again true as without some of those timely deep shots, this game could easily have gone in the other direction.
In the end, a win is a win and I’ll not turn it down. These last couple weeks of the season mean too much to be overly concerned with how the wins are earned, just that they’re earned at all. But the grind it out nature of the contest, Bynum’s foul (and potential suspension – the league will surely review it), Kobe’s struggles, and overall play of the team certainly left me wanting. Against many other teams this game may have ended the other way, so I’m just going to be happy for the outcome and look forward to Sunday where I hope to see a better performance that still yields the same result.