A mark of a championship team is winning when you don’t play your best. Another is being able to play well enough in spurts to keep a game close and then turning it on at an opportune time to bring home a win. Against the Jazz, the Lakers showed both qualities in spades to earn the victory 96-85, keeping their winning streak and momentum going in the process.
This game started out looking nothing like a win was on the way, though. In fact, it started quite ugly for the Lakers as the Jazz used excellent energy to jump out to an early, substantial lead. The Lakers looked like a team that had played the night before as tired legs and a lack of focus on doing the little things (a real symptom of fatigue) plagued their play and the Jazz took every opportunity to exploit that. Utah pushed the ball in the open court, attacked the offensive glass hard, and moved well off the ball in their flex sets to get very makable shots. Before you knew it, the Lakers found themselves down by double digits and the Jazz looked to be in control.
This pattern repeated itself at the beginning of both the 1st and 2nd quarters, but at the end of each of those periods the Lakers also made pushes of their own to ensure that the Jazz wouldn’t run away and hide to the point that the game could not be won. The key stretch was the end of the 2nd quarter where in the last 2:46 of the period the Lakers went on a 10-0 run to trim the Jazz lead to six. The fact that the Lakers could go into the 2nd half only trailing by that margin was a win in and of itself because it allowed them to start the 2nd half fresh and with a puncher’s chance to win the game.
And punch away the Lakers did.
In the 2nd half the Lakers took firm control of the contest clamping down on defense while recommitting offensively to exploit where the Jazz were weak. By attacking inside on offense and closing down the lane and forcing the Jazz to shoot jumpers on defense, the Lakers went back to the winning formula that they’ve used since coming out of the all-star break. Suddenly, the Jazz were no longer able to grab every offensive rebound off their misses. Nor were they able to simply throw a direct entry into the high post and run their offense to get shots close to the rim. The Lakers also shut down penetration so that the lay-ins the Jazz were getting both out of their base sets and in the open court essentially disappeared. What was left was a team that was relying on jumpers and while some dropped, not enough did.
Meanwhile the Lakers went back to their bread and butter of moving the ball on to the open player so that the best shot would get taken. Kobe was especially good at making the right read either by looking for his own shot or dutifully passing the ball to one of his mates that was more open. And after Kobe had helped lead the early push in the 3rd quarter that tied the game (he ended up hitting Fisher in the corner for the three that did the deed), the bench came in and took hold of the contest. A Shannon Brown lay in put the Lakers up by two. A Steve Blake steal and coast to coast finish pushed the lead to four. And just like the night before, a Lamar Odom three-pointer on LA’s last 3rd quarter possession pushed the lead to seven. And away they went.
The 4th proved to be more of the same as the Lakers D held strong and their O only opened up the game further. If you read the play by play, you’d see the following possessions from the start of the period up until the 8:52 mark: Shannon lay in, Lamar 3-pointer, Bynum lay-in + the foul (w/ converted FT), CJ Miles FT, Shannon alley oop, Steve Blake jumper (this was a great PUJIT after Blake got the ball in the open court off an outlet pass and went behind his back all in one motion before breaking out to shoot his J).
Blake’s last jumper pushed LA’s lead to 18 and that was that. The Jazz would make one more minor push to cut the lead to 12, but Phil then responded by putting the starters back in and they closed the game out from there. The key numbers from that dominant 2nd half were the Lakers holding the Jazz to 37 points while scoring 54 of their own and a nearly complete flipping of the efficiency marks for both sides where by the end of the game the Lakers posted an offensive rating of 111.6 while holding the Jazz to a mark of 98.8. In the 4th quarter the Lakers only had one turnover, essentially punishing the Jazz with fantastic offensive execution while clamping down on D and doing so without fouling. (As an aside, one of the main reasons the Lakers were even close in this game early was because the Jazz couldn’t stop fouling the Lakers. LA lived at the FT line early on and their ability to get free points while the rest of their offense struggled was huge. One thing that didn’t leave the Jazz with Sloan’s retirement is Utah’s penchant for fouling as the final FT numbers reflect: Lakers 30 FTA, Jazz 18 FTA).
In the end, this game wasn’t really pretty and it took a while for the Lakers to find their legs and to dial in on both sides of the ball, but when they did it was great to see. Individually, the players took accountability to play better and then collectively, as a team, they spurred each other on and made the little plays that they weren’t making early on. Every player that saw time contributed in some way, but it wasn’t just the stats. It was the cheering on of each other and all the plays that were made to help each other succeed. I know it’s easy to look at the Lakers as this top-heavy collection of talent, but more and more they’re playing as a great team. And when this much talent can actually play greater than the sum of its parts, the opponent is in trouble. That’s how you put together streaks like the one the Lakers are on and why I’m confident it can continue.