With their 116-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers have moved to a 4-1 record since the All-Star break, one game under .500 and two games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. While the Lakers did play well tonight, the implications of the win are much more important than how they actually went about winning the game. With a home loss to a very beatable team in the Timberwolves, it would have put the Lakers back three games behind the Houston Rockets with games against the Hawks, Thunder and Bulls coming up in the next five. And while the other five teams competing for the last 2-3 playoff spots (Utah, Houston, Golden State, and Portland) have all been struggling recently, it’s not in the Lakers best interest to keep pace with their struggles if their ultimate goal is to make the post season. Considering their upcoming schedule — 12 of the last 23 games will come against non-playoff and/or bubble-playoff teams — they have an opportunity to finish the season very strongly, and could very well end up as high as the seventh seed. I’m not necessarily trying to get ahead of Sunday’s game against the Hawks, but merely pointing out the importance of a mundane win over the Timberwolves at this point in the season. Every win matters from here on out, and losses will seemingly matter more.
Before we look ahead to Sunday, let’s take a look at what they did well tonight.
- First and foremost, I’d like to commend the work that the bench unit was able to put in tonight. Outside of Kobe Bryant, the triumvirate of Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks outscored the Lakers starters with 46 points on 37 shots with 18 rebounds and 7 assists. Blake played particularly well by getting the offense in its sets, finding open teammates (six dimes) and picking his spots well. Blake was three-for-five from the three point line and had an uncharacteristic seven rebounds. I thought Blake was spectacular passing the ball. He had a pass to Jamison who slipped a screen late in the first that was brilliant and a pass to Dwight Howard in the second where he probed the defense until Howard was free, then slipped a nice bounce pass right behind Greg Steisma.
- To that point, Jamison’s game has been its absolute best when he’s been able to get easy looks around the rim by moving well off the ball. He’s been fantastic slipping screens in P&R situations while his uncanny ability to cut to the basket at just the right time has really helped this offense move. While moving off the ball is important, the timing and the understanding of spacing is equally important — and it seems as if Jamison has the best understanding of these things on the team, and he’s been taking full advantage of that skill set lately. And it was in full effect tonight against the ‘Wolves.
- Moving on to the starting unit, Bryant has had yet another brilliant game. For the fourth straight game, Bean has scored at least 29 points and shot over 50 percent from the field (h/t to Ryan Cole for that stat). While it’s not nearly as impressive as what LeBron James was doing earlier this month, it’s still ridiculous for a guy his age to be so efficient scoring the basketball. What was interesting about Bryant’s 33 points tonight was the fact that he recorded 11 points in each of the first three quarters (he sat out the fourth). 13-22 from the field with five rebounds and five assists is a hell of a night.
- For the other guys, there were some good things there as well. I thought both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard did a great job of setting the tone early. Nash was aggressively looking to score off the dribble and Howard was extremely active on both ends of the floor. Neither of those guys have amazing nights in terms of the box score, but each of those two impacted the game in very real ways. The Timberwolves were double teaming Howard off the ball for a large part of the third quarter (as a part of their zone scheme) to try to keep the ball out of his hands. Nash, who made some great passes as the night progressed, also didn’t turn the ball over and kept the unforced errors to a minimum to reduce the number of Minnesota extra possessions.
All and all, it was a great night for the Lakers. With Golden State, Houston and Utah all losing yesterday, it was essential for them to pick up this win and close the gap between those currently in the Top 8 seeds and themselves. As mentioned earlier, they’re only two games outside of a playoff spot with 23 games left to play. Getting in is very doable, but they have to win the gimmie games like tonight that they had struggled with to begin the season. They play again on Sunday night at 6:30 PST against the Atlanta Hawks.