The Lakers were able to come away with a huge 20-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks on a night that largely belonged to ex-Laker Shaquille O’Neal. The 101-81 was a performance that brought about nostalgia, frustration due to the rare glimpse at this team’s potential, and smiles to the faces of Lakers fans and legends everywhere.
Before getting into the game, it must be mentioned that it was great to see Shaq’s jersey retirement. Kobe’s video, Phil’s speech, Jeanie’s speech, Shaq’s speech, and Shaq’s jersey being unveiled with the Superman theme song being played in the background — all really cool and fun to catch. I did notice that Shaq is the first Laker to have his jersey retired with the new design, essentially ushering in a new generation of Lakers greats. Seeing Shaq’s jersey hanging up there with the likes of other Laker big men like Kareem and Wilt is a testament to how great and consistent this franchise has been throughout not only the course of my lifetime, but the lifetime of my father and will likely continue through the lifetimes of our children. While Dr. Buss is no longer with us, Shaq’s jersey, and those that were already hanging, will be a everlasting reminder of what he was able to accomplish as an owner and the standard that this organization will strive to live up to — and now, Shaq is forever immortalized as a part of that Forum Blue and Golden Standard.
Of course, there was also a basketball game played. It was a game that many felt was a must-win for this Lakers team if they still wanted to consider themselves in the hunt for the 8th spot out West. Not only did the Lakers win, we got and idea of how good this team could have been, and probably should have been all season. Here are a few observations from tonight’s game:
- Kobe Bryant played a brilliant basketball game. He set the tone for the game early, looking to attack the rim and looking for his teammates. He picked his spots, found open teammates, and saw a couple of jump shots fall early that got him into a good rhythm. While some of the other guys weren’t knocking down the open looks he got for them (Steve Blake, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison all missed open looks after kickouts or swing passes from Kobe in the first quarter), Kobe continued to look for them throughout the game. Kobe finished the first quarter with one assist, and finished the game with 11. He also recorded 11 rebounds and 23 points. Kobe needed 18 shots to get his 23 points, but there were very little qualms with his shot selection. A few of his misses came at the end of the shot clock, and a couple of them were just Kobe being Kobe, but for the most part, he was on top of his game offensively. And even with a triple double, the most impressive part of Kobe’s game was the work he put in defensively. It was one of the rare nights over the last three or so years where he was keyed in both on and off the ball — and the defense as a whole looked a whole lot better because of it. Kobe wasn’t caught sinking into the paint looking to play free safety while loosing his man for open looks on the perimeter. Instead, he played helpside from two passes away, and rotated over to his man when the ball was being swung back to his side. He had a the huge block on Brandon Wright who was looking to dunk and picked off a few passes. All in all, this was one of the best games for Kobe this season, and he nearly played every second. It was hard not to expect a huge night from Bean on Shaq’s night, and he definitely delivered.
- The starting front court of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol both showed up big for the Lakers tonight as well. The two combined for 38 points and 22 rebounds. Howard finished with a solid 24 and 12 line — and in Shaq-like fashion — he hit his free throws when they counted. When the game was still in doubt with just over three minutes left to play in the 4th, the Mavs went to the Hack-a-Howard strategy and Howard made them pay, going 6-8 from the line during that stretch and helped the Lakers extend their lead instead of watching it crumble like similar situations this season. Pau was phenomenal defensively. The Spaniard was assigned the tough task of defending Dirk Nowitzki, and essentially did a great job on him. Along with Earl Clark, they were able to crowd Dirk for the most part and not allow him to get off quick shots on the catch. Clark struggled a bit with staying on his feet during those Dirk pump fakes, but Pau did a fantastic job staying home and forcing either a pass to a lesser scoring threat or forcing a tough jump shot over a 7-footer’s arms. Dirk finished with 11 points (!) and needed 13 shots (!) to get those 11 points. Dirk hit a couple of tough jumpers, but there are nothing but good things to say about how Pau and Clark defended the German and his glorious beard.
- Speaking of Clark, it was nice to see him have a big game after three consecutive nights without recording a point. With about three minutes left to play in the 3rd quarter, OJ Mayo drained a three pointer to cut the Lakers lead to five after it had been pushed to 16 only four minutes before. After a D’Antoni timeout, Kobe missed a 3-pointer and Clark grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. 7-point lead. On the next possession, Clark drilled a 3-pointer. 10-point lead. On the next possession, Earl Clark dropped a dime to Jodie Meeks. 12-point lead. In a three-minute stretch to end the third quarter, Clark scored five points, grabbed two rebounds, recorded an assist and a block. More importantly, he gave the Lakers the momentum back going into the fourth quarter. I can’t emphasize how much his energy was needed on a night that the Lakers were playing short-handed and with guys playing heavy minutes. It was nice to see him have a great game, he needed it more than anyone else. His 17 points12 rebounds and five blocks are all highs for him in the last 20 games.
It was a great night of basketball on a historic occasion. The Lakers were able to keep pace with the Jazz and distance themselves a bit from the Mavericks. While the playoff race is far from over with seven games left — five against teams that are playoff bound — tonight was a huge win and something that can be built upon. Once again, congratulations to Shaq. We were spoiled for the eight years he was a Laker, we’ll never see another quite like him.