This was a game that the Lakers needed to have and they got it. If you’re looking for a single positive from another hard fought, ugly game there you go. In the playoffs it’s quite rare for things to come easy and this game was further proof of that. But the Lakers – as a team – came through tonight, evening the series at one game a piece by defeating the Hornets 87-78.
And it really was a team effort. Because on this night it wasn’t only Pau Gasol that couldn’t find his groove on offense, but Kobe Bryant as well. Neither of the Lakers’ best players could effectively crack the code of the Hornet defense, making only 5 of the 20 shots they combined to take for a grand total of 19 points. Gasol continued to get pushed off his spots by the physical Hornets’ big men, consistently getting stood up on back down attempts and cut off when he tried to drive to the hoop. The result was several forced jumpers and open complaints to the referees that went unheard with his frustration only rising as the game progressed. His only saving grace on offense was his ability to tally 5 offensive rebounds – including several big volleyball taps out in the final period – but those 5 rebounds also represented his total for the game (meaning he didn’t grab a single defensive rebound). Needless to say, Pau is still looking for anything resembling a solid game in these young playoffs.
As for Kobe, he wasn’t much better as a scorer than Gasol, though #24 did work the game in other ways. He mostly played the distributor role early and looked to get everyone involved. He quickly moved the ball within the flow of the offense, often making the simple pass on to an open teammate rather than trying to force the action. His two assists really don’t do his night justice as he easily had a handful more hockey assists in the game. And even though Kobe’s shot wasn’t falling, I was quite happy that he continued to attack the basket and looked to get shots right at the rim. The Hornets did a good job contesting his shots at the rim and Kobe had a few shots just fall off the cylinder (as well as some plays where he could have earned a whistle) and his lack of success was as much about bad luck as anything else.
Where Kobe and Pau fell short, other Lakers stepped up. Andrew Bynum had a team high 17 points on 8 of 11 shooting. He used his monstrous frame to camp at the low block, call for the ball, and do damage against Okafor and Aaron Gray. When he wasn’t banging in the post, he faced up well and shot a sweet 15 foot jumper to keep the defense honest. Lamar Odom also had a very good offensive game, pouring in 16 points of his own on 8-12 from the floor. The aggressive Odom that was missing in game 1 was back for all to see tonight, as the Lakers’ lanky lefty got back to slashing and driving his way to the rim for finishes at the cup. Several times Odom went coast to coast after securing a rebound and effectively maneuvered around whatever Hornet stood in his path to get to the bucket and finish with skill and grace. Just a splendid all around offensive game from Lamar on the night that the NBA honored him with his 6th MOY trophy. LO’s Queensbridge brother also had another very good outing. Artest simply did a bit of everything as his line of 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 each of assists/steals/blocks can attest. He played under control, attacked the offensive glass, moved well within the flow of the offense, and did so many little things that help a team win games.
Beyond those big names, the Lakers bench also played very well. Steve Blake’s return clearly helped the group as his steadiness and desire to organize the 2nd unit helped settle down a group that was erratic on Sunday. With Blake doing the majority of the ball handling, Shannon Brown was able to play more within himself (at least for the most part) and not force too many looks the way he did in game 1. Matt Barnes also benefited from the return of Blake, as his slashing off the ball was better rewarded with the ball movement that’s been missing of late. On one possession Blake had an open 15 footer but turned it down to instead hit a cutting Barnes in stride, setting him up for a short floater.
Beyond the stronger play on offense though, where the Lakers really won this game was on defense. As a team the Hornets only shot 39% while also turning the ball over 16 times. The Lakers pressured ball handlers, got into passing lanes, deflected passes, and used active hands to consistently disrupt the Hornets’ sets. The difference between the Lakers’ effort on D tonight vs. what was provided on Sunday was like night and day.
As was the Lakers defense on Chris Paul. While CP3 still had a 20 point, 9 assist outing (great numbers, really) tonight he was successfully bottled up, save for a couple of buzzer beating three pointers. The Lakers threw multiple defenders at Paul, hedged and recovered on P&R’s, and contested his every move on the court much better than in game one. This is where Kobe gets some extra credit as well, as he was great in picking up Paul early in the half court and then denying him the ball after he passed to a teammate. Sure Kobe committed some silly fouls and gave up some easy drives by pressuring a bit too much but overall #24 deserves a lot of credit for taking the challenge of guarding Paul and helping to limit him the way that he did. As does Steve Blake. Though he only saw limited minutes on Paul, I thought Blake defended him best in one on one and P&R situations. Blake successfully fought over screens, stayed connected to his body, and didn’t get blown by once when matched up with Paul. On Blake’s 1st defensive possession vs. Paul he chased him around a screen, created an isolation situation with the clock running down, and then forced a long jumper (that he contested expertly) that missed badly. Overall, Blake showed why Phil was so high on him coming back tonight.
Overall though, it was the big men that truly get the round of applause when it comes to the defensive effort. Bynum was great at controlling the paint, contesting shots at every turn and fouling when he needed to prevent an easy basket. Gasol was also much better on D tonight, sliding his feet and sticking with ball handlers for longer stretches to allow the Laker guards to recover back without getting beat or giving up uncontested jumpers. When both bigs were in the game together they not only helped slow the Hornets P&R attack but also limited the Hornets’ bigs to 21 points on 22 shots, creating a big hole in their offense that was sorely needed. Just a great overall showing by LA’s trio of bigs tonight.
In the end, this game wasn’t pretty but it was a win. The physicality and low scoring nature of the game made it very difficult to watch in stretches but by coming out on top I can’t complain at all. And while there are still several things to improve going into Friday’s contest, I must say I’m encouraged that things will get better. I have faith that Gasol will start to turn his game around and I’m hopeful that the Lakers can continue to build on their success against Paul and the P&R. One win down, three more to go.