The Lakers got back on the winning track, taking down the Suns 91-85 in a game that was memorable for some good and some bad reasons.
The bad, of course, was due to the strange night that Kobe Bryant had. In the first period, Kobe started off distributing the ball just as he has in many of the Lakers’ wins recently. He tallied six assists in those first 12 minutes, moving the ball expertly to open teammates while mostly operating from the top of the floor instead of from the low post. He worked in the P&R, created in isolation, and did well to find the open man in transition. The fact that he’d not yet taken a shot didn’t really matter at this point simply because the offense was flowing so well. Things were all good.
However, as the game went on, Kobe continued to pass and pass even when an opening really wasn’t there. The 2nd quarter saw him get two more assists, but also commit two turnovers. It also saw him not attempt a single field goal — the first time he’d not taken a shot in a half since 2004 vs the Sonics (according to ESPN Stats & Info). In the 3rd period, things really got strange as Kobe started to try to find his own offense, only to miss all 5 of his field goal attempts. When he tried to start passing, things went even more awry as he tallied no assists while committing three turnovers. In the 4th period, Kobe did hit a shot (his only one of the game) and only earned a single assist while committing another turnover. His final line of the night was 4 points on 8 shots (his lowest output on that many field goal attempts since 1998) while committing 8 turnovers to balance against his 9 assists. Like I said before, just a strange, strange night for Mr. Bean.
That said, this game came down to more than what Kobe was doing — which is a good thing, since if this game was only about #24, the Lakers lose handily. Yes, other Lakers stepped up to fill the void that Kobe left.
Chief among them was Dwight Howard. The Lakers’ big man played 41 minutes in this game and scored 19 points while grabbing 18 rebounds. Dwight was active on both ends of the floor and it was that activity that fueled his success. On offense, he was much better about setting good picks and then diving hard to the rim to create passing angles. When he didn’t get direct passes, he drew defenders his way (and drew fouls too) which opened up the floor for his teammates. When Dwight wasn’t involved in the P&R, he remained in motion, cutting into the open gaps of the defense and making himself available to receive passes on the move; passes that he could convert into baskets.
Defensively, Dwight did a good job of helping on penetration and challenging shots in the paint. He wasn’t always where he needed to be, but he was there often enough to disrupt the Suns’ offense when they tried to take the ball inside. He altered and blocked shots (2 on the night) and did a much better job of being active in the screen game ensuring that ball handlers simply couldn’t get to the rim or shooters off the ball couldn’t walk into open jumpers when his man set picks away from the action. All in all, Dwight’s effort and activity were one of the chief reasons the Lakers were up early and able to seize control of the game late.
Also key was Antawn Jamison, whose scoring and work on the glass were huge off the bench. Jamison’s double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds were especially big considering all the hustle plays that went into those stats. His work on the boards weren’t the simple “I’m just going to stand here and grab a loose ball” plays, but were grabbed in crowds with bodies all around him. Four of his rebounds were on the offensive end with key putbacks resulting more than once. He also did a good job of not just settling for his outside jumper to get his points. Even though he hit two 3 pointers (in 4 attempts), he did a lot of slashing and cutting out of the P&R that got him shots on the move; shots you want him taking more often than the deep jumpers he can sometimes rely on too often.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the night that Ron had. His 17 points were big, especially his 9 first quarter points that really got the Lakers off to a good start. Combine his scoring with his 8 rebounds and 4 steals, and his activity on the defensive end can’t be overstated. He worked hard all night to try and contain Luis Scola and Michael Beasley, and while both had good scoring nights it could have been much worse had Ron not disrupted their rhythm with his scrappy defense.
Overall, though, this was a pretty big team win with the entire group finding a way to turn a horrid third quarter into a very good fourth quarter where they took control. Down the stretch the Lakers went away from a Kobe-centric attack and instead relied on Nash and Howard to generate offense in the P&R. This tactic worked very well and with Kobe spotting up on the weak side, the defense was put in a tough position in how they would defend the action. When the weak side wing didn’t dip down, Dwight Howard got an easy dunk. When that defender did go to help, the Lakers moved the ball well and found Kobe open against a closing out defender and he did a good job of hitting Dwight with a key pass for a basket that gave the Lakers control down the stretch.
When it was all said and done, it was this diversity that fueled the Lakers. No, Kobe didn’t play well and, in fact, had one of his worst statistical outputs in many years. However, the Lakers were able to battle back and find different ways to attack the Suns and still be effective. A game like this isn’t one anybody will want to watch again anytime soon, but it was a nice way for the other Lakers to find their stride and prove that they can impact the game positively and drive the team to a win when Kobe — who’s been carrying this team all year — isn’t able to do so. Whether this can be something that carries over remains to be seen but it sure was nice to see.