There’s no denying it now, the Lakers are rounding into championship form. They’re looking stronger by the game and continue to find ways to put the clamps on their opponents and pull out impressive victories. Tonight it was the Magic that stepped in front of the Laker buzz saw, falling 97-84, allowing the Lakers to up their post all-star record to 10-1.
Early on, though, it didn’t look like the Lakers would be on the right side of the scoreboard when the final whistle blew. The home team simply couldn’t make enough baskets. The Lakers worked their game plan by going inside to Gasol and working Kobe in his sweet spots, but neither could do any damage. Pau had multiple chances in the post against Ryan Anderson but allowed the Magic PF to root him out from the post to make his looks less effective. Seemingly every sweeping hook or turnaround jumper fell harmlessly off the rim as the big Spaniard struggled to score in what looked to be the biggest mismatch of the game.
Meanwhile Kobe, who decided he was good enough to go on his sprained ankle, was no better as he tried to work Jason Richardson in post and wing isolations. Even though his stride and ability to get up and down the floor looked fine, his jumper did not as shot after shot missed short or right with Richardson using his strength to keep Kobe from getting the clean looks he typically can when bodying opposing shooting guards.
On the other end, though, Orlando was working their offense to get the exact types of shots they thrive off of. Ryan Anderson found himself wide open several times outside the arc and made the Lakers pay as they collapsed down low hoping to protect the paint. Jameer Nelson also found gaps in the Lakers D off P&R’s and in the open court to get shots at the rim as the Lakers switched on the perimeter trying not to get beat on big man dives. And then there was Dwight Howard who showed the growth in his offensive game by hitting several wing jumpers as Bynum gave him space not wanting to get beat by the quick first step of the Magic big man.
But even with Orlando getting what it wanted, the Lakers kept the game close by sticking with their game plan to a tee. While Dwight Howard attempted to intimidate and control the paint by attacking Laker shots inside, Andrew Bynum continued his stellar work on the glass by cleaning up on the offensive glass (grabbing several of his 9! O-rebounds on the night) to earn the Lakers extra possessions. And with those extra shots, the Lakers made some timely jumpers (especially Derek Fisher) to ensure that the Magic wouldn’t run away and hide and turn this game into a rout in the 1st half. When you add Pau finally getting a couple of baskets to fall, Odom doing the same, and the Lakers forcing several turnovers, the Magic were only able to take a 5 point cushion into the 2nd half.
A cushion that wouldn’t nearly be enough, as it turns out.
In the 2nd half, the Lakers simply dominated Orlando and turned the game on its head. After not being able to find any traction in the first half, Pau and Kobe found their offensive stride. Rather than relying strictly on isolations, Kobe worked more off the ball and fought for post position to earn real estate closer to the hoop resulting in easier shots that he knocked down. #24 scored 12 of his 16 points in the 2nd half and picked up his D too, forcing a turnover and drawing a charge that kept the momentum swinging in the Lakers’ direction. Gasol, meanwhile, started to go at Anderson quicker and more decisively rather than jab stepping or trying to back his way into the post from 15 feet out. It also helped that the Lakers ran more cross screen actions to get Pau moving the ball and closer to hoop but it all resulted in Gasol getting the types of looks that he thrives off and getting the Orlando D off balance. Even when Gasol found Howard as his primary defender it didn’t really matter as Pau simply moved away from the hoop and knocked down his mid-range jumper as Howard backed off so as to not give up quick drives to the hoop. Simply put, Orlando just couldn’t get a stop when they needed it.
And where Orlando’s D struggled, the Lakers D excelled. Full court ball pressure, traps at the mid line and on the wing, and double teams in the post forced countless Magic turnovers that the Lakers took the other way for easy baskets. The open shots that the Magic had available to them in the first half vanished in the second as the Lakers ran their shooters off the three point line and forced them into the mid-range shots the D is designed to yield. And every time Howard got the ball in the post the Lakers swarmed with dig downs and double teams that Howard had trouble dealing with all night to the tune of 9 turnovers committed.
This is where Bynum and Gasol truly deserve credit. After both picked up some touch fouls jockeying for position in the 1st half, the Laker big men showed great resolve and good physicality in battling Howard for every inch of court space in the 2nd twenty four minutes. Every time Howard dipped his massive shoulder to generate some breathing room to get off his shot, Bynum and Gasol held their ground and allowed their mates to come and disrupt Howard’s handle of the ball. Bynum was especially great as he matched Howard every step of the way building on his ability to block a couple of Howard looks early to discourage those same shots later. Not to mention the fact that Bynum was able to not only keep up, but surpass Howard on the glass. When you compare their numbers (Howard had 22 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks; Bynum had 10 points, a career high 18 rebounds, 4 blocks) it’s easy to see that Big Drew rose to the challenge of facing the marquee big man in the game. Sure Bynum was outscored by 12 points, but he was so instrumental in helping to force Howard’s 9 TO’s while also earning LA so many extra possessions that it’s not a stretch to say the match up tilted in favor of Bynum. Considering that this game was a measuring stick contest of sorts, I’d say Bynum showed that his post all-star game surge is very much real and his impact comparable to any big man in the league.
To put the Lakers’ 2nd half dominance in a statistical measure, their offensive efficiency was a whopping 141.5 and their defensive efficiency over that same 24 minute stretch was 92.7. They again held an opponent to a sub 40 point half (Orlando scored only 38 points) and forced 10 turnovers while not coughing the ball up a single time themselves. Every player contributed to the supreme 2nd half with Odom hitting two big three pointers to extend the Laker lead, Barnes contributing his 5 total points in that stretch, and Blake playing great D on Jameer and Duhon by picking up full court and really pressuring the ball. It truly was a total team effort.
And that’s what the Lakers are becoming right before our eyes and right at the right time: a total team. Kobe may not have had it going early but Fisher picked up the scoring slack. When Pau missed shots, Drew cleaned up on the O-glass. When Ron went to the bench for a rest, Barnes came in and played strong D in his stead. And in the 2nd half the guys that didn’t play well early turned it on to generate a wing going away. What we saw all night is exactly what we’ve seen since the team regrouped after all-star weekend and if teams around the league haven’t noticed, I’d be surprised. If Kobe couldn’t use a bit of rest I’d say it’s a shame that the team doesn’t play until Friday because I’d like for nothing more than for them to keep this going with another game tomorrow. It sure is good to watch this team play right now.