Coming into this game I talked about how this game would be decided by which team’s strength won out in the end. Well, it was the Laker offense that handled their business in the 2nd half, leading them to a 90-81 lead that vaulted them into the 8th seed.
For most of this game it was actually the non-Kobe Lakers who carried the team on O. Through three quarters, Kobe and the Lakers were having a bit of trouble cracking the code of the Bulls’ strong side zone scheme with Luol Deng doing a very good job at the point of attack. Wherever Kobe went he had Deng pestering his dribble and a secondary defender (normally Joakim Noah) lurking near the paint to take away any drives to the rim. This left Kobe shooting contested jumpers with not too many of them falling.
Lucky for the Lakers, they have other offensive threats who can help fill that void. And while the first half saw what was mostly a slug fest between two dialed in defenses, the third quarter saw a shift in the form of Steve Nash finding his stride. Nash hit 4 of his 6 shots in the period to score 10 points. He hit a variety of tough shots and in doing so he was able to open up the floor for his teammates in a way that put a lot of stress on the defense. With Nash scoring well, that’s when Kobe was also able to assert himself offensively, scoring 8 points on 2-3 shooting in his own right. Combine that with Earl Clark’s 6 points and Meeks knocking down a three pointer and the Lakers were able to outscore the Bulls by 8 in the period and create the separation they’d use to put their collective foot on the necks of the Bulls in the 4th quarter.
In that final period, everything started to work for the Lakers as they finally figured out how to attack the Bulls’ defense. By picking on Carlos Boozer with P&R actions, the Lakers exposed the Bulls’ worst big man defender and compromised the middle of the defense for easy baskets. The Lakers made a subtle adjustment by using Ron as the screener in the P&R to make Boozer hedge out and try to contain Kobe coming off the pick. Kobe was then able to attack Boozer and create shots for himself and for others, including a lob for Dwight that made the Bulls make another adjustment — a switch of Noah onto Ron. So, on the next play down the Lakers simply ran a P&R with Dwight to once again involve Boozer and that set up a rhythm jumper for Ron when Noah once again had to help. All in all, Kobe had 4 of his game high 9 assists in that 4th quarter, all of them important to closing out the game.
The dismantling of the Bulls down the stretch was as much about execution as it was shot making but it was also the Lakers simply clicking on O in a way we’ve rarely seen against such a disciplined defensive team.
But it wasn’t just the Lakers’ offense that played well, their defense was also very sharp — and for the entire game to boot. It started with Dwight Howard whose activity and effectiveness on that side of the ball is starting to approximate what he was doing before his back surgery. Dwight was excellent in defending the rim by challenging shots, accumulating 4 blocks and altering countless others. But where Howard was also brilliant was in his off ball work, stepping out on the pin down screens and curl actions the Bulls like to run and effectively crowding the paint in the process. Dwight’s movements around the floor gummed up an already challenged Bulls’ scheme and made it so his teammates could recover to their man without being exposed. Furthermore, Dwight was able to do all these things and still recover back to the paint to rebound the ball, grabbing 14 defensive rebounds (21 total) in the process of anchoring the team’s D.
Overall, this may have been the most complete game the Lakers have played since they began to rack up wins. There was no need for a dramatic come back. There was no let down to start the game or to close any quarters. They were strong on both sides of the ball, didn’t commit turnovers in excess, and pretty much controlled the tempo of the game all day. And really, that was what impressed most. The Lakers played their game and dictated to the Bulls the terms of engagement. And, with that, they won fairly easily.
So, now, the Lakers find themselves back into the field of 8. And while the goals will be to move up and gain better seeding, the focus of playing their best ball each game and furthering their chemistry to establish the style they can use to win is what’s most important. As they continue to make strides, they become even more dangerous. It finally looks to be coming together for this team.
UPDATE: In my original post I had a paragraph on Ron’s defensive effort that somehow got deleted when I published. Needless to say, I was quite impressed with the way that Ron played Boozer defensively, battling him for position and limiting his ability to do any damage. Boozer can be a particularly difficult match up when he gets his game going, but Ron effectively pushed him off his spots and was able to disrupt his ability to even make a catch. When Boozer did get the ball, Ron stripped him of the ball multiple times and threw off his rhythm further. And while Ron didn’t have a great night shooting the ball from the outside (0-6 on threes), his defense was instrumental in helping to shut down one of the only good weapons the Bulls had available to them and for that he deserves some recognition.