This wasn’t a pretty game. Far from it, actually. But the Lakers battled, kept the game close, and made the plays down the stretch to beat the Blazers 84-80. The win clinched the Pacific Division and served as a reminder that the guys with the old legs still have some left in the tank.
And really, that was the big take away from this game – the Lakers, for all their poor shooting and all the possessions that they came up empty, just kept fighting. They played through contact, kept their composure (for the most part), and found a way to keep the game close so their veteran players could make the plays – plays that they’ve made so many times before – on this night too.
Yes, they missed Andrew Bynum. On too many possessions the Lakers bigs ended up having to scramble to help on both drives and in showing strong side zone looks to deter post entries. This tactic left Blazer shooters open on the weak side and when circling to the top of the key on ball rotations. Nic Batum made this defense pay to the tune of 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting, including 4-9 from three point range. And when Batum wasn’t doing his damage from the outside, LaMarcus Aldridge was shooting that feathery jumper of his before the D could get to him to get his Blazers the points they needed to keep the Lakers at arm’s length.
But the Lakers just kept grinding.
Lamar Odom was great in Bynum’s stead, making 8 of his 11 shots and grabbing 11 rebounds. Better yet, though, was his work as a facilitator in the offense where he tallied 6 assists by moving the ball on to an open teammate both in open court situations (a soccer style outlet pass to Shannon Brown was as pretty a deep pass I’ve seen) and in the half court. Odom brought the ball up and was great in helping to organize the Lakers’ sets so that when they needed a good look they could at least put forth a decent effort to get one.
Pau joined LO in playing a solid game, if not his most efficient one. Gasol needed 15 shots to score his 14 points, but did add 13 rebounds (including 5 offensive) with 3 assists and 2 blocks to provide a strong anchor in the post without Bynum as a partner in the paint. Most important though, was the fact that Gasol only picked up 2 fouls the entire night and that meant that he could essentially match up with Aldridge all night and make his life a bit more difficult than it was the last time that these teams matched up. Aldridge did get some good shots to fall, but Pau did a good job of sitting on his right hand (only a few times allowing LMA to get to the middle from the left block) and making him shoot contested jumpers. It’s a testament to LaMarcus that he was able to hit as many as he did considering Pau’s length and the timing he showed in contesting those looks.
But really, this game was about the closing minutes and how the Lakers’ two longtime clutch performers came up big again. In the final 4:18 of the game, Fisher and Kobe combined for 12 points (and Kobe assisted on the Lakers only other basket in this stretch) to carry the team home. If we hadn’t seen this so many times before, I’d say that I was surprised but really it was just a reminder of what they’re capable of.
A Kobe jumper was followed by his bullet assist to Pau for an easy basket at the rim. On the next Blazer possession, Kobe knocked the ball away from Andre Miller, Fish picked up the loose ball and threw ahead to a streaking #24 for the dunk that tied the game. After a Portland timeout, Derek Fisher got a steal of his own took the ball coast to coast and after taking a big stride scooped up a lay in that gave the Lakers the lead that they’d not give up. Their last two buckets sealed the game as Kobe shot a fading baseline jumper after beating his man off the dribble to his right hand (only a shot that we’ve seen hundreds of times before) and Fish capped it all off with a step in twenty footer at the top of the key after the play broke down. Vintage stuff from both.
In the end, I can’t say I enjoyed this game from an aesthetic stand point but I definitely reveled in the grit, determination, and poise that the Lakers showed to come up with the win. With Bynum out and the game not really going their way for most of the contest, this team could have chalked up a loss to poor circumstances and moved on to the awaiting Suns on Tuesday. Instead they fought hard and made the big plays that championship teams make when their backs are against the wall. They turned a 4 point deficit with 4 minutes left into a 4 point win by riding 5 straight makes from Kobe/Fisher while forcing the Blazers’ into missed shots and turnovers to take seize the contest. Again, it wasn’t pretty but damn was it a sight to see. After Kobe hit his baseline jumper, high fived a fan, and screamed at the top of his lungs as he ran back up the court you could see how much this game meant to him and the rest of the guys. This team is rounding into playoff form. And that, even more than the win, is what I’m excited about.