Gross. Gritty. Grotesque. Gruesome.
For three quarters, the Lakers and Pacers engaged in one of the ugliest games of the season. Both teams were shooting under 40 percent from the field and both teams were shooting lest than 43 percent around the rim. There were loads of bunnies missed right at the bucket way too many long twos were taken and the two teams had combined to shoot six-for-19 on mid-range jump shots. Also through three quarters, both teams were reckless with the ball with each team turning it over 13 times.
For much of the season, these were the kind of games that the Pacers seemed to win and the Lakers seemed to lose. And with two of their best four players in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol sidelined with injuries (Kobe gave his ankle a go in the first quarter, but wasn’t able to return), the writing seemed like it was on the wall — the Lakers would be heading home with another road loss. The Pacers went into the fourth quarter with a one-point lead, a healthier lineup, a better bench unit and more size to collect the rebound from misses that came at an alarming rate up until that point.
Then the fourth quarter happened. Both teams lifted their collective games and some fantastic basketball was played. While the Lakers may have run a variety of sets in the fourth quarter, they largely ran their offense through Dwight, looking to get him the ball in the post on both sides of the lane, giving him room to operate and sliding down to the wing to receive open passes should a post up stall. They ran a series of P&Rs between Nash and Dwight, they ran the Horns sets a few times and even got the ball to Howard through the center-opposite action a few times.
The variety in the Lakers sets down the stretch kept the Indiana defense on their heels, and allowed for the Lakers to shoot some open jumpers — that they were actually able to knock down. They cut down on the number of long twos that they shot in the fourth (only three of their 20 fgas were between 15 feet and the 3-point line, and they made two of those). And it wasn’t only hitting the shots, but the timeliness of the shots that they made were huge.
There were five times in the fourth quarter where the Lakers recaptured the lead after the Pacers either tied the game or took the lead. Steve Blake’s three pointer after sliding down to the left wing during a Dwight post up; Steve Nash’s pull up 17-footer with 7:45 left to play; Earl Clark’s three-pointer to put the Lakers back up three after Paul George knocked down a game tying three of his own; Blake’s 2nd three pointer of the quarter following George Hill’s floater over Dwight that gave Indiana a one-point lead; and then Dwight’s layup that he slammed off the backboard with his right hand after Hill’s mid-range jumper tied the game — all huge plays for the Lakers down the stretch.
And when the Lakers took that final lead off of Howard’s layup with about 1:30 left to play in the game, they held onto the lead and closed out the game. The Pacers shot two-for-six in the final 90 seconds while Jamison hit a huge three to extend the lead to two possessions and Howard was able to get a break away dunk off of a loose ball that essentially put the game on ice.
This wasn’t just a huge win because it was on the road against a good team without two of their best players, it was also a huge win because of the way they won. The Lakers, even when winning, haven’t been able to pull out the ugly victories much this season. They didn’t shoot well to begin the game. Hell, they didn’t shoot well through the first three quarters. But they played hard for those three quarters to keep them within striking distance going into the fourth. They worked hard on the defensive end by contesting shots at the rim (Indiana shot 43 percent on field goals at the rim tonight). They could have done a much better job of running shooters off of the line, but for the most part the defensive energy was good enough to keep the Pacers offensive attack off balance.
D’Antoni got solid contributions from almost everyone who played tonight. Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison were the keys tonight. Blake was five-for-eight from the field with 18 points, but he stuffed the stat sheet adding six rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks while only committing one turnover. Jamison wasn’t as spectacular, but he shot six-for-10 from the field with 17 points and hit a couple of timely threes to help the Lakers cause down the stretch.
Dwight and Ron were both very good tonight for the starting unit. Dwight had 20 points on seven-for-17 shooting, but showed tons of maturity during the fourth quarter allowing the offense to run through him and constantly making the right play. He had a few shots that didn’t fall around the rim, mainly do to a lack of touch, but his kick out to Steve Blake and an absolutely gorgeous pass to a cutting Jamison that was almost Shaq-esque really stood out. Ron, who was a bit reckless in some instances as he sometimes is, played a decent game, and hit a few shots in the third quarter to help keep the game from getting away from them after Indiana got off to a hot start to begin the 2nd half.
All-in-all, I was largely impressed with the grit this team had tonight. Road wins against a tough, physical teams come at a premium — and with a series of very winable games over the next week and a half (v. Sac, @PHX, v. Was, @GS, @MIN). The Lakers are putting themselves in position to not only make the post season, but maybe finish with either the seventh or sixth seeds, pulling them away from a first-round match up against the Spurs or Thunder. While there is still a lot of hoops left to be played, you have to love what they were able to do tonight.