Lakers/Jazz: 40 Again, Plus The Bigs Deliver In Crunch Time

Emile Avanessian —  January 12, 2012

Box score: Lakers 90, Jazz 87 (Overtime)
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 90.6, Jazz 86.1
True Shooting %: Lakers 49.8%, Jazz 43.5%

The Good:
Through three quarters not only was this not a contest, I was hard pressed to identify an honorable mention.

As he did last night against the Suns, Kobe Bryant set the tone early for the Lakers, hitting five of seven from the field in the first quarter, for 14 points.  While he was characteristically aggressive offensively, Kobe did an excellent job of operating within the offense, finding his own shot and creating a couple of easy buckets for Matt Barnes and Andrew Bynum. He continued his efficient assault in the second quarter, connecting on three of five to bring his halftime total to 21, on just 12 shots. By the halfway point of the third, sitting on 27 points on 16 field goal attempts (he had 31 on 11-19 FG after three quarters), it looked as though Kobe had not only picked up where he’d left off against Phoenix, but would actually manage to trump Tuesday’s brilliant showing.

That he finished the overtime tilt with 40 is somewhat disappointing (I know, right? We are spoiled), though not because he managed just nine points in the final two stanzas, but because of how he got there. The efficiency and team play of the first 36 minutes became a distant memory, as the offense stagnated while Kobe tried to singlehandedly put the Jazz away. He made just three of 12 shots after the third quarter, and took three less-than-stellar shots in the final 64 seconds (he was bailed out on two).

Make no mistake, the Lakers do not sniff this win without Kobe, but this game was sealed at the defensive end. After allowing the Jazz to rack up 30 points in the paint in the first half, the Lakers’ bigs staked their claim to the lane, allowing just 10 points inside in the second half, with Andrew Bynum racking up five blocked shots (more on this in a sec). The effort was not limited to the inside. The Jazz connected on less than 39% of their shot attempts (43.5% TS) for the game, and with the exception of the red-hot Paul Millsap, who scored 29 on 14-of-24 from the field, the Jazz hit just 22 of 69 shots  (32%). Additionally, while the Lakers continued to have difficulties protecting possession, turning the ball over 17 times, the stellar defensive effort prevented their carelessness from coming back to haunt them, as Utah managed just seven points off of those 17 takeaways.

One last thing… DARIUS MORRIS PLAYED! And he looked pretty good too! Sure he overdribbled a couple of times and forced a drive attempt that resulted in a turnover, but if his first 13 NBA minutes are any indication, this guy has a place in the NBA. His first meaningful touch came in the final seconds of the first quarter, when he led a perfect 2-on-1 break and found Metta World Peace for a dunk. He also made both of his field goal attempts and later found Steve Blake for a late-third quarter 3 that put the Lakers ahead by a bucket. Not saying this guy is the next Chris Paul, but given the (let’s be kind) suspect play turned in by Blake and Derek Fisher at the point, a young lead guard that adjusts nicely to the pace of the game and avoids mental errors in his pro debut is probably worth a look.

The Bad:
I had initially planned to call out a pair of “B’s” here, but the Laker Bigs, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, while lackluster offensively – a combined 10 of 27 from the field and 5-of-8 on free throws, for 26 points – and lit up by Paul Millsap, played hard in the paint and made a series of vital plays down the stretch (more on this in a second) without which the Lakers would not have registered the victory.

The other “B,” however, the Lakers’ Bench, a night after contributing to a nice home win, was virtually nonexistent. The bench logged a total of 72 minutes Wednesday, combining to score 11 points on 5-of-13 from the field (no free throw attempts), grab nine rebounds (none on the offensive glass) and hand out two assists. Pretty ugly. Pull out the contribution of the aforementioned Darius Morris and this crew was downright brutal, scored seven points (on 3-of-11 FG) and grabbing eight rebounds in 59 minutes. By comparison, in 34 minutes, Utah’s sixth man, ex-All-Star-turned-veteran-castoff Josh Howard, managed 18 points and four rebounds, while the rest of the Jazz backups combined for 17 points, 17 rebounds (five offensive) and five assists, and made up for a putrid 5-of-20 FG by earning 12 free throws and making nine.

The 2011-12 Lakers are a top-heavy team – we know this. With Matt Barnes healthy and seemingly carving out a valuable role with the starting unit, it may not be long before we can call the Lakers a “four deep” squad. However, looking beyond that quartet I am hard pressed to identify a single player capable to consistently contributing in crunch time. Hell, at this point I think I trust Darius Morris more than anyone else on the bench.

The Ugly:
The Lakers entered Wednesday’s game as the NBA’s second-worst 3-point shooting team, connecting on an unbelievable (and not in the good way) 23% of their attempts from beyond the arc. The collective 4-for-9 effort does technically represent an improvement, but within that number is perhaps the most disheartening statistic of the young season: with their combined 0-for-3 effort on Wednesday, Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace – two guys expected to create space for the bigs and receives the kicks following Kobe’s drives – have now combined to hit on just 10% (4-of-40) of their 3-point attempts this season.

The less said here, the better.

Play(s) of the Game:
Not a whole lot to choose from in the first 51 minutes of this one. Early candidates included Darius Morris finding Metta World Peace with 44 seconds remaining in the first quarter (0:52 mark) for his first career assist, Kobe Bryant’s picture perfect pump fake/pivot/step-through jumper (0:55) – also in the final seconds of the first, and Andrew Bynum stopping his massive frame on a dime and finding Matt Barnes to finish off a third quarter fast break (2:10).

Ultimately, however, the nod goes to the Lakers’ big men in the clutch. On most nights, the first runner-up- Pau Gasol’s nothing-but-net 3-pointer from the corner (3:09) in OT to cut a four-point deficit to one- would win going away.

HOWEVAH…

On a night when his shot was simply not falling, rather than allowing himself to become discouraged, Andrew Bynum focused his energy on denying Al Jefferson (one night removed from a 30-point performance) the post position he so covets and protecting the rim (five blocks!).

It was this effort – roughly 50 seconds after Bynum hit the offensive glass to tip in a wild miss by Kobe (3:24) and return the Lakers to the lead – that ultimately wound up sealing the win. With the clock running down and the Jazz trailing by a point, Gordon Hayward drove the lane (3:30 mark), drawing two defenders to the rim, before dropping the ball off to Jefferson. One of the best inside scorers in the game, Jefferson gathered the ball and, at point blank range went to secure the win, but…

Full highlights – Lakers at Jazz, January 11, 2012

Emile Avanessian

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