The Lakers held on down the stretch, fending off a full of fight Hornets team 111-106. That’s the Lakers’ 3rd straight win and it really does seem like they’re finding their stride some and figuring out how to play together. Which, of course, is quite promising. That said, if all you saw was that final score, or even the last few minutes of game action that led to that score you’d have a much different perception of what this game was like.
With five and a half minutes left in this game the Lakers led the Hornets 98-80. The Lakers got the lead to 18 points after making a strong push to start the 4th quarter behind the reserve backcourt of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks to go with Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, and Dwight Howard in the front court. This group played a balanced style with the ball moving (which was the trend all night, really) and hit shots from all over the floor. Back to time-score combination, however, as this is important. With 5:30 left, the Lakers had the game in hand. It looked like Kobe and Nash wouldn’t come back in, Dwight would sub out for Sacre at some point, and the bench would close out the game trading baskets.
That’s not what happened however. No, because over the next two and a half minutes, the Hornets outscored 16-2, making the score 100-96. This made the last two minutes of the game much more adventurous that it needed to be and, frankly, than it should have been. The Lakers started to struggle on offense. The ball was still moving but the energy wasn’t completely there. A turnover was followed by a missed jumper. And then another missed jumper. And then another. Meanwhile the Hornets were taking those misses the other way and turning them into points. A short jumper by Vasquez. Then one by Lopez. Then one by Anderson. Some FT’s by Rivers. Another finish by Vasquez, this time with a foul. Another jumper by Anderson, but this time it’s a three pointer. Suddenly the game that was put away is now decidedly there for the taking.
The Lakers were able to string together some needed stops and get a couple of buckets down the stretch and ultimately won the game but that 4th quarter was a poorly played one and there’s no getting around the fact that everyone on the floor at that time deserves some blame. As does Mike D’Antoni for making no adjustments while the lead kept getting cut down. Particularly frustrating was watching Jamison remain in the game (fair or not when the Lakers went on their offensive drought it was Jamison that was missing the open jumpers) as he struggled to defend in transition, but also had a couple of rough half court ones too being asked to guard Ryan Anderson who started to find his range. D’Antoni had the chance to pull Jamison with two minutes left but instead gambled by sticking with his veteran while Pau and Ron sat on the bench watching.
The gamble did pay off, however, and that’s ultimately what this game is about. Jamison made up for some of his miscues the best he could by making a nice play in the final minute to get a lay up in the half court by attacking the basket when a defender was forced to close out on him in the corner. That basket was, ultimately, the one that clinched the game and was much more indicative of the rest of the contest which is what the focus of this game really should be.
Because even though the Lakers let their foot off the gas late and the Hornets — well coached as they are — took advantage, this game really wasn’t that close in the middle portion. After taking a one point lead into the 2nd quarter, the Lakers led by 12 at the half. In the third quarter the Hornets made a push, but another late close by the Lakers kept the lead at 10 heading into that final frame. Then, of course, the Lakers played well enough to start the period to push the lead all the way to 18 before the aforementioned letdown.
Most of this game was another very good display by the Lakers who really do seem to be figuring out how they can attack defenses with Kobe working below the foul line while cutters and shooters work on the weak side. Furthermore, against the Hornets the Lakers rediscovered their high P&R game with Nash and Kobe operating as facilitators with Dwight working the paint with a variety of strong finishes. Meanwhile, defensively, the Lakers are looking sharper as well by better getting out on shooters and by rotating behind Howard as he steps up to block shots. There were still some breakdowns (Eric Gordon shook free too often) and there were some issues containing dribble penetration in isolation (especially by Nash who struggled with Vasquez most of the night), but the overall effort on D is improved.
And really, that’s why the Lakers are winning. There’s a formula on both ends of the floor, they’re following it, and it’s working. They’ll now have to take their recipe on the road and see if the results can taste as good, but at least they’ve tried it in the test kitchen to smiling faces who left happy and full stomachs. That success can give them the confidence to know that what they’re trying to do does, in fact, work. And that confidence, so lacking just a week ago, can be all the difference for this team.