The wins just keep coming.
The Lakers were able to improve their post ASG record to a sparkling 14-1 with a 112-104 victory over the Clippers. However, I’d be lying if I said that the Lakers played their best game or that this win was some sort of dominant performance indicative of how the Lakers have outclassed many opponents since the break. The fact is, the Lakers played well but the Clips hung around in this game, keeping it close to the point that the outcome was somewhat in doubt in the 4th quarter.
A few positives and a few negatives from this game:
*Kobe Bryant poured in 37 points for the 2nd straight game, the first time he’s accomplished totals that high in back to back games since the Celtic and Rockets games on January 30th and February 1st respectively. Better than the point totals though, was the fact that he scored them efficiently, needing only 21 shots to get there while also taking a season high 17 free throws. Kobe did a great job attacking off the dribble and rarely settled for the long jumper if a sliver of space existed where he could advance towards the hoop. On several occasions he used high P&R’s in semi-transition to shed his defender and then used the bounce to get all the way to the rim where he finished around the Clipper big men. Kobe also worked well off the ball, using weak side screens to curl towards the top of the circle where he could get off his jumper cleanly. Best of all, though was how Kobe balanced his shot taking with picking out his teammates for open shots. #24 ended the night with 6 assists, but it easily could have been 10 had some of the shots he set his teammates up for got thrown in. Because Kobe’s own offense was going, the defense consistently collapsed towards his side and he expertly picked out teammates cross court either when spotting up or slashing into open space behind the D. On several occasions Kobe used the P&R and a diving big to draw the D in only to skip the ball to a ‘mate (mostly Artest) that then had several seconds to properly set his feet and fire away. Just a superb all around offensive night for Mr. Bean.
*Pau Gasol joined Kobe with a splendid offensive night of his own. Pau hit 10 of his 15 shots to score 26 points, including 6-6 from the FT line. In the preview to this game, I mentioned that the Lakers should go into Gasol early and often to attack Blake Griffin and that’s exactly what happened as the Lakers first basket was a Gasol jump hook after a strong back down move. Pau then proceeded to knock down jumper after jumper, continuing to show the great touch on his J that’s been present for months. I really can’t say enough about the consistent way that Gasol is knocking down his jumper and how it’s become a staple of the Lakers’ sets. He’s become nearly automatic from 17 feet and in to the point that when he makes the catch at the mid post then turns and faces, I pretty much expect the shot to fall as he releases that rainbow jumper of his. Several times last night he simply made the catch, turned, jab stepped his defender into taking a half step back, and then fired away with his jumper.
*Where Kobe and Pau excelled on offense, Ron Artest excelled on D. Matched up with Eric Gordon, Ron went into lockdown mode to completely remove Gordon as a threat to hurt the Lakers. Ron harassed all over the court, poking the ball away if Gordon for a second exposed it, bodying him every time he came off a screen, and completely shutting him down if Gordon dared try to isolate him on the wing. Gordon finished the game 3-14 from the field but missed his first 11 shots with Ron draped all over him. But it wasn’t just Ron’s work on Gordon that made this a standout defensive night. He also had the defensive play of the game when he made an open court steal on Blake Griffin with under a minute to go when a basket would have brought the Clips back to within a single basket. I think it’s safe to say that if Griffin gets a basket on that play this game takes a different tone down the stretch but instead Ron sealed the game with his steal. Offensively, Ron also had a game to remember. He made 6 of his 11 shots, including 3 of his 5 three pointers to tally 15 points. He also had an adventurous night attacking the rim, dunking a ball on Chris Kaman after a nice baseline drive but then missing two other attempts and thunderous slams when working in the open court. And while jokes about exceeding his dunk quota poured in on twitter (including one from me), I’m just happy that he’s attacking the rim with such reckless abandon.
*The non-Artest D could have used some work, however. The Lakers did a decent job of clamping down on the Clips in the first half, holding them to an offensive efficiency of 98.0, but still gave up too many open shots and weren’t stingy enough in closing down the paint. Early on it was Mo Williams pushing the ball up court after both made and missed baskets and getting good looks for himself and his teammates after collapsing the D on drives in transition. The Lakers did a poor job of recognizing Williams pushing the pace, didn’t build a wall against him, and instead let him break down their defensive integrity. And when it wasn’t Williams getting into the paint, it was Blake Griffin providing his normal highlights. At the end of the first quarter, Steve Blake shot a jumper that ended up missing but instead of hustling back to slow a streaking Griffin, Shannon Brown just stood and watched as the miss turned into a 55 foot alley oop to the soaring dunk champ. In the 2nd half, things only broke down further as the Lakers were too lax in closing out on shooters. Williams continued his hot shooting (he finished with 30 points on only 16 shots) and he was joined by Randy Foye in knocking down the open shots that the Lakers surrendered. Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of the Laker D was solid as Bynum did a good job of protecting the rim when he was in the game, but besides Bynum and Ron the team defense was lacking. There’s a reason this game was close in the final minutes, the Lakers just started to try and match baskets rather than stop the Clips from getting and making good shots.
*Besides poor defensive execution, the performance of the Laker bench was the other part of this game that was lacking. While the guys played hard, they showed little cohesion or ability to knock down the open shots that were there for them. The foursome of Odom, Blake, Barnes, and Brown shot a dreadful 5-20 and combined for only 16 points. Again, I don’t want to bury them as they played hard and contributed in other areas but it’s no coincidence that all 4 players were on the negative side of the plus/minus ledger as the Clips’ major pushes in this game all coincided with the Laker bench on the floor. Despite a couple of top 10 level plays – Odom had a great wrap around pass to Gasol for a dunk and Brown had an up and under dunk that rivaled anything Griffin did all night – it just wasn’t the bench’s night. They didn’t move the ball enough on offense and when they did try to make the extra pass it was a bit too risky, and on defense they didn’t have the same intensity or focus that the 1st unit had.
*This isn’t quite a negative, but deserves mentioning: This game was quite chippy. Blake Griffin was fouled hard on more than one occasion, including a play where Artest wrapped him up and tossed him to the floor. Griffin didn’t make a move towards Ron, but did give a hard stare to the ref as if he was looking for a flagrant foul. Kobe got hit in the face on a jump shot late in the game and looked none too pleased that there wasn’t a foul call after he finally scraped himself up off the floor. And then there was the exchange between Derek Fisher and Chris Kaman late in the game. Kaman set a moving screen on Fish and Derek proceeded to give Chris a shove after the play. The two had to be separated after the play and Kaman was unwilling to let it go, ultimately getting tossed from the game after he (seemingly) was telling Fish to meet him after the game for some sort of bare knuckled brawl. (Seeing Kaman mouth something about “being right there” while pointing to the tunnel was both comical and a bit worrisome considering both guys would be hanging around after the game. That said, I trust that Fish can handle his own in any altercation. I wouldn’t want to be hit by one of those arms.)
In the end, though, the Lakers took this game by making enough plays to win. At this point I’ll take the W and let the film session do the teaching rather than have the players forced to learn from a loss. As we’ve mentioned several times in the past couple of weeks the race for playoff seeding is in full effect and with the Spurs and Celtics both losing, the Bulls and Heat winning, and Dallas idle the Lakers were able to pick up a game on the two teams seen as their biggest threats and keep pace with the other teams that represent threats in the post season. There are little things I’d like to see the Lakers clean up as the season comes to a close but with their current trajectory I have little doubt that the team is on the right track to achieve their goal of playing their best ball when the playoffs begin.