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Tonight’s win in Minnesota wasn’t an easy one to watch. While the 120-117 win is valuable in terms of this team holding off the Mavericks and making the post season, it isn’t exactly the kind of performance you’d like to be seeing heading into the post season either.

The first half of the game was eerily sloppy. They turned the ball over at an alarming rate, 15 times in the first 24 minutes. When they weren’t turning the ball over, they were playing some decent basketball, running the offense through their bigs Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol who combined for 21 points and 18 rebounds on eight-for-13 shooting. Kobe, although turnover happy, was in facilitator mode early and often in the first half and was the last of the Lakers starters to record any points. Antawn Jamison also came off the bench and had a productive first half with 12 points on 4-6 shooting and four rebounds.

Defensively, the Lakers were much improved from their last two outings, but still left much to be desired. Bryant seemed a bit more locked into running his guy off the line and closing out on shooters. They also did a better job of keeping guards (Rubio, Barea) out of the paint in the first half. When the perimeter defense did break down, Howard and, to some extent, Gasol both did a great job of protecting the rim. The ‘Wolves shot 17-of-47 in the first half, which is just above a .360 clip. A lot of Minnesota’s missed shots were a open looks that just didn’t fall, but regardless, the Lakers defense did seem much improved on the night.

In the third quarter, the Lakers played a much cleaner game. The first two possessions of the third were turnovers, but they only finished the quarter with three total turnovers. The offense moved from playing inside-out to Kobe taking over (16 points in the 3rd), but the lack of turnovers allowed for a 41-point third and pushed the lead from four to 12 going into the fourth — and would have remained the same had Howard and Gasol received more touches.

However, the defensive struggles returned for the Lakers in the third, and would eventually spill over to the fourth. Barea and Rubio started getting into the paint while Dante Cunningham and Chase Budinger continually found themselves wide open — a 17-footer for Cunningham and the corner three for Budinger — were what continued to give the Lakers issues.

Regardless, the lead stayed at about 3-possession deficit for much of the second half. But in Laker-Like fashion, the Lakers couldn’t hold their lead and were a non-called foul on a Ricky Rubio desperation three away from seeing the game go into overtime after pushing their lead to 14 points. In the last six minutes of the game, the Lakers gave up 25 points and lost the rebound battle 16-3. SIXTEEN TO THREE. And while it took the Wolves 23 shots to get their 25 points in the final six minutes, the Lakers afforded them nine extra possessions with two turnovers and giving up seven offensive rebounds. Nicola Pekovic, Budinger and Rubio all scored nine points in the final six minutes while the Lakers as a team shot three-for-eight in that same time.

Of course, the ‘Wolves explored the Hack-A-Dwight option for a full minute and cut at 12-point lead to seven during that minute span, but the Lakers never really regained control of the game.

It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless. They’ll have another opportunity to prove that they can win on the road tomorrow night in Milwaukee with a Bucks team that poses a lot of match up problems for this Lakers game. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond after an ugly win despite a few very good individual performances.

While the Lakers were run out of the building in their game against the Suns, they had been generally playing some very good and fun basketball. After the Lakers loss to the Atlanta Hawks that saw Kobe Bryant go down with an ankle injury in the closing seconds, they played a tough, physical game against the Indiana Pacers and won a more uptempo finesse game against the Sacramento Kings.

The result of each game was a win despite the very different nature in which they were played, but a few things remained constant: 1) The ball moved very well, with all guys who saw at least 20 minutes in those two games shooting the ball at least six times. Five guys scored in double figures in the game against the Pacers and six guys scored in double figures in the game against the Kings. There was a natural flow to the offense, it was ran through Dwight Howard, and guys stepped up when needed. 2) The three ball fell at a solid rate in both games. They made .500 of their threes against the Pacers and .429 against the Kings. The Lakers three point success was directly related to the ball moving well and shots being taken from the offense playing inside out. 3) They didn’t let turnovers kill them. They had 15 and 13 turnovers, respectively, but neither the Pacers nor the Kings had a tremendous number of points off turnovers or fast break points. 15 turnovers is around their season average, and while it isn’t the most clean game the Lakers can play, they didn’t turn the ball over in positions favorable to their opposition.

In other words, the Lakers were Dr. Jekyll, a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty”. While smooth faced may not suit may guys suited up in the Forum Blue and Gold, they’re a rather large team full of old guys. And like Jekyll, the Lakers have been trying to fight off the hoop evils that just aren’t suited for a team of this stature. Considering the expectations, this Lakers team should be well above two games over .500 — and for those two games without either Bryant or Gasol on the floor — they ostensibly fought those evils away and played good basketball.

While it’s hard to ignore the egg that the Lakers laid against the Suns (again), the Lakers pretty much continued their stretch of good hoops in the first half of their game against the Wizards. The ball movement was absolutely brilliant, and the movement off of the ball was equally great. Dwight Howard made a gorgeous pocket pass to Pau in the paint. Steve Blake made a couple of gorgeous passes (one to a cutting Jodie Meeks and the other being a behind-the-back pass to Antawn Jamison who was cutting baseline). Kobe was using the attention he got from the defense to find open teammates, which led to six first half assists. Everyone who saw time in the first half took at least two shots and no one took more than six.

The three ball was also falling at a 50 percent clip. Ron Artest hit both of the attempts he took in the first half (his only two shots of the first half) and all four guys off the bench hit one-of-two from behind the arc. The Lakers only made one more three pointer in the first half than the Wizards, but the Wizards took three more attempts. The Lakers looked like a fine-tuned machine, a team that had spent the whole season together, the team pundits and fans alike expected to see by at least December. While it was a bit later in the season than expected, it was nice to see the potential of this team realized, even if it was against what seemed like an inferior opponent. The Lakers ability to shoot the ball at a high clip coupled with their exquisite ball movement led to a 16-point halftime lead.

There was a red flag, though. Nine turnovers. Nine turnovers is quite a bit, and those nine turnovers turned into 14 first half fast break points for the Wizards. The transformation was coming to the surface.

Mr. Hyde.

The Lakers turned into a completely different team in the second half. In an attempt to rid themselves of the hoops evils that had haunted them all season, those very evils came to fruition in the second half of this game and they were outscored by the Wizards 62-43 in the final 24 minutes.

On the defensive end, a combination of their inability to stay in front of John Wall coupled with their unwillingness to aggressively close out on shooters or run them off of the three point line led to them putting themselves in some compromising positions. Either John Wall was finishing around the rim, finding one of his bigs for a layup at the basket or finding a wing for a wide-open three pointer. Wall had 18 points on six-for-11 shooting with 11 assists in the second half alone.

The biggest beneficiary of Wall’s ability to get into the paint at will was ex-Laker Trevor Ariza, who hit five (WIDE OPEN) three pointers in the second half, seven in the game — a career high for made three pointers. Ariza was largely found wide open because of Kobe’s propensity to play free safety and his disinclination for getting back out to the perimeter when Ariza received kick out passes. And when Kobe wasn’t being lazy, he was just flat out wrong. There was one play in particular where Wall got caught in the air near the left wing and Kobe assumed that he was going to pass to Nene at the elbow, but instead opted for a skip pass to Ariza in the right corner, that led to one of his five 2nd half three pointers.

For the most part, the Lakers rotations were worse than biting into a steak sandwich laced with globs of unwanted mayonnaise (this happened to me tonight), and it all really began with the whole crew of guards’ inability to keep Wall out of the paint. One late rotation led to another, a pattern that continued until there was no rotation at all and an open shot was taken.

On the other end of the floor, the ball movement we saw in the first half was nearly non-existent. Guys held on to the ball for long stretches, there was too much dribbling without purpose and the shot distribution went from a looking like a plateau to looking like a cliff. Kobe took 13 shots in the second half, and no other Laker took more than five (Steve Nash took five, everyone else had fewer than that). And when the game was tight in the final eight or so minutes, there was a stretch where Kobe took eight of the Lakers nine shots, completely taking the rest of the team out of rhythm.

Mr. Hyde.

The result was a 103-100 loss at home at the hands of a team, while much improved, the Lakers really should beat. There was a whole first half of really good basketball, but even against some of the NBA’s bottom feeders, if you only play one half of basketball, chances are you aren’t going to pull out the victory. It was expected for this team to take a bit of time to figure each other out with Kobe and Pau back in the lineup, but with a 16-point lead going into the 2nd half, it’s a game that absolutely needs to be closed out regardless of circumstance.

And while the loss stings, it doesn’t sting nearly as much as the team potentially losing Antawn Jamison for some time because of the sprain wrist he suffered tonight. We’ll await the MRI tomorrow to know how serious, but a sprained wrist on the shooting hand of a guy who had been playing very well is going to have its consequences whether or not he misses games. The Lakers have the rest of the weekend off to work out some of their kinks before they head up north to play the Warriors in an important game in terms of playoff positioning.

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.

Tonight was an absolutely ugly game from both teams. Los Angeles were coming in after a win in Orlando while the Hawks were coming off of a huge loss from Miami, and the game looked like both teams were on the second half of a back-to-back. The Hawks would ultimately win this game 96-92, but they did everything they could down the stretch to give it away.

The two biggest problems for the Lakers tonight was their poor shot selection and their missed defensive assignments. Kobe came out chucking the ball like he did in the Orlando game, and wasn’t able to hit on anything until late in the second quarter. Kobe took a lot of contested jump shots and went into the half with three points on 1-8 shooting. There were too many possessions where Kobe spent more time dribbling the ball than actively looking to make plays for either himself or his teammates. Instead of playing within the flow of the game, it seemed like he was constantly looking to get himself going after a couple of down games — which ultimately ended up with him having another down game (31 points on 33 shots with five of the Lakers eight turnovers).

The offense never really got into a groove on the night. Kobe set the tone early with long jumpers, and that’s what the rest of the team did the rest of the night. 47 of their 92 shots tonight were from at least 15 feet and out, including 29 three pointers. Of those 47 shots, they only made 11, which is a staggering 23 percent. A lot of these longer shots turned into fast breaks for the Hawks, who scored 11 fast break points and plenty more on secondary breaks. This also led to quite a few kick out three pointers after guards got into the lane after Lakers defenders failed to get back on the defensive end in a timely fashion.

On the other end of the floor, we saw more signs of the Lakers playing on the 2nd of a back-to-back. The rotations were constantly slow, guys were getting beat off the dribble and guys weren’t able to find their man off the ball. There were several times, especially early as the Hawks built their biggest lead of 14 where Kobe got sucked into the lane hoping to help out on either Horford or Johan Petro and ended up getting burnt by a three point shooter or a cutter back door. With Earl Clark going down early with an ankle injury, the Hawks were able to clean up some of the boards and guy like Petro was able to record a double-double.

The second half looked a bit better for the Lakers — especially Kobe — who shot eight-for-16 in the third quarter and recorded 20 points to keep them within striking distance. In the fourth, the Lakers were able to take a four point lead, but weren’t able to hold onto the lead or recapture it down the stretch because they simply couldn’t make shots. The Lakers were 3-11 in the last five minutes of the game, which included two missed bunnies from Kobe and Ron that would have given the Lakers a one-point lead with about a minute left to play. The Hawks’ John Jenkins and Kyle Korver missed free throws down the stretch, but the Lakers weren’t able to take advantage of them.

The loss for the Lakers was huge, but they may have suffered an even bigger loss if they end up losing Kobe for an extended period. He attempted a game tying jumper with about two seconds left to play and landed on Dahntay Jones’ foot, spraining his ankle. Kobe was able to walk off the floor under his own power and his X-rays were negative, but according to Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski, Kobe will be out indefinitely.

With Kobe, you never know what that means as he’s played through so many injuries, but tonight, it’s not the greatest sign moving forward. The Jazz lost, so they’ll hold onto their 8th spot out West for another day, but the Mavericks are coming on strong (1 game back), so not having Kobe for just one game could be really tough to overcome, especially with the Pacers up next on the schedule.

Records: Lakers 30-30 (9th in the West), Thunder 43-16 (2th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 107.7 (8th in the NBA), Thunder 112.8 (1st in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (16th in the NBA), Thunder 102.9 (8th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Thunder: Russell Westbroo, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Thunder: None

Thunder Blogs: Make sure you’re keeping up with Daily Thunder for all of your OKC news.

Keys to the Game: Coming into tonight’s match up against the Thunder, it’s hard to expect the Lakers to record only the fifth win for a road team in Oklahoma City this year. The Thunder have been nearly unbeatable at home — and in two of the three games this season — have been much better than the Lakers on the floor. It took a rough shooting night from both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (the combined for 33 percent from the field) and six Lakers to score in double figures to squeak out a win at home. However, should the Lakers win tonight, it would be a humungous boost in their quest for a playoff spot. They’ve been getting some help from the other teams vying for the last two spots out west (thanks, Utah!) and they’ve been helping themselves with their 5-1 record since the All-Star break. A loss to the Thunder tonight wouldn’t be devastating, but they really could use a big win. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that will need to go in the Lakers direction tonight for another win against OKC.

One of the reasons that the Lakers were so successful against the Thunder in their last meeting was because of the less than stellar performance from Russell Westbrook. Russ didn’t just shoot six-for-22 from the field, but he took myriad terrible shots while he tried to find his rhythm that essentially pushed him further away from his groove with each attempt. He took a lot of shots that we aren’t used to seeing Russ take — the two post-up fade aways over Nash that both missed badly immediately come to mind. Westbrook was also taking a lot of mid-to-long range jump shots early on, which helped the Lakers tremendously. Westbrook is one of those guys who, if he finds an early rhythm, he’s damn near impossible to contain. Fortunately, the Lakers were able to minimize their turnovers (only 13) and didn’t take too many long range shots. And when they did (four of the five transition layups Westbrook attempted were a result of a missed three pointer or a turnover), the Lakers were able to get back in transition and contest his shots at the rim. If you take a look at Westbrook’s shot chart, it’s exactly what you want to see. Lots of medium and mid-ranged jump shots and more misses than makes around the rim. A lot of this can be attributed to Westbrook’s poor shot selection, but the Lakers, namely Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, did a great job of protecting the rim as he tried to get buckets in the paint.

Westbrook Shot Chart

The Lakers are also going to need a huge contribution off the bench if they’re going to be successful in Oklahoma City. In each of the last two games against the Thunder, the Lakers bench has outplayed the Thunder bench. On January 11, Kevin Martin scored 15 points, but was neutralized by Antwan Jamison’s 19 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. In the Lakers win, Pau Gasol and Jamison combined for 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting. According to hoopsstats.com, the efficiency differential in each of those games was a positive one for the Lakers bench (+19 in the loss, +6 in the win). Tonight, the Lakers bench will be without Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill (injured) or Earl Clark (starting), so it’s going to be essential for Jamison to step up and be the lone Lakers big off the bench. It’ll also be essential for Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake to knock down the open shots that they’ll likely receive. Meeks, Jamison and Blake have played relatively well since the All-Star Break, they’ll have to continue trending up if the Lakers are going to pull out a win tonight.

What might be the most important aspect to tonight’s match up will be how the Lakers defend Kevin Durant. In the previous match up, Earl Clark and Ron Artest split time as the primary defender on Durant with shocking results. Clark had a much better night guarding the league’s defending scoring champ, holding him to seven points on 3-for-11 shooting. When Ron got the assignment? Durant did most of his heavy lifting hitting five of 10 shots for 11 points. The staggering difference between the two lies in Ron’s declining foot speed and the added length with Clark as the defender. Clark did a great job of running Durant off of his spots, going over screens and closing out on jump shots (the one three that Durant did make, Clark got sucked in on a Westbrook drive). With Ron guarding Durant, Scott Brooks had Durant play off the ball a lot more and ran him through a series of screen. Down the stretch, Brooks didn’t run Durant much, but put Ron and Earl in off-ball screen situations to create the favorable match up for Durant.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.