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Well, that was fun.

Without Kobe and without a point guard playing a single minute (the newly acquired Kendall Marshall was a DNP-CD), the Lakers beat the Timberwolves by 13 points to move back to .500 on the season. I’d say I saw this coming, but that would be a lie. The Lakers again played like the unpredictable, free-wheeling group they were before Kobe returned and put it on the Wolves in a totally unexpected manner.

The highlights and fun moments were plentiful, but what stood out most to me was the way this team played defensively. The ‘Wolves only converted on 33 of their 95 field goals (34.7%), including a pretty terrible 5-22 from behind the arc. If you want to know what that wretchedness looks like, here you go:

Wolves

That includes Kevin Love’s 9-18 from the floor, too. Take his night away, and the Wolves only hit 24 of 77 shots from the floor against a Lakers’ D that scrambled and hustled around the floor smartly to contest shots by the team’s better shooters while leaving the guys open who deserved to be. The result was a T-Wolves’ offense that never really got on track and struggled to produce points in the half court. Of course, the Wolves didn’t help themselves by playing lineups with multiple non-factors on offense for most of the night, but those are the guys they have at their disposal, so I’m really not sure what Rick Adelman was supposed to do.

While I’ll remember the D, most others will remember the balanced offensive night that had three Lakers score 20 or more points with the entire team shooting nearly 54% for the evening.

Nick Young was fantastic off the bench with a team high 25 points, including several big jumpers in the 2nd half that either stopped a Minnesota team that looked poised to make a run or pushed the Lakers ahead and really got the crowd (and his teammates) into the action. Xavier Henry was also fantastic, scoring 21 points on a very nice combination of long jumpers and nice finishes at the rim. Henry wasn’t particularly efficient (8-19 shooting), but his aggressiveness never waned and the team needed the pressure he applied to the T-Wolves defense.

For my money, though, the Lakers’ best player offensively was Pau Gasol. The big Spaniard had 21 points on 8-15 shooting while also dishing out a team high 8 assists to go with his 13 rebounds (6 offensive). Pau orchestrated the offense from the high and low post, making several good reads and acting as a facilitator on countless possessions. His ability to have the offense funnel through him was especially needed considering the team’s lack of point guards and the fact that he was able to get his teammates going while still being an efficient scoring option really kept the team’s offense balanced. He also had the most fun play of the night, hitting a big three pointer with the shot clock running down and then running back up the court celebrating a la Nick Young with a smile wider than we’ve seen him flash in some time.

And that may be the biggest takeaway from this game. The Lakers, while being counted out by nearly everyone and with countless reasons to feel down on themselves, went out and played hard, played together, and had fun. They’re back to being the underdog and while that’s not a familiar place for this franchise, it certainly seems to fit this group of players who revel in being able to outperform expectations and enjoy showing people that even with the odds against them they still know how to play this game. In the long run playing the spoiler isn’t going to get them any closer to the lofty goals the organization sets for themselves, but it will ingratiate themselves to a fan-base looking for some bright spots and who will cheer you on when you play hard and provide some entertainment while doing it.

For now, maybe that’s all we can ask for but if the team is going to deliver it we’re all going to love them for it.

The Atlanta Hawks dropped 67 points in the second half and held Kobe Bryant to just eight points in 32 minutes to overcome a seven-point halftime deficit and beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 114-100, on Monday night.

Al Horford led the Hawks in scoring with 19 points, but the team also received balanced scoring throughout the lineup as five other players hit double figures. One of those players was Kyle Korver, who hit three timely threes in a third quarter where the Hawks outscored the Lakers, 35-19.

The Hawks outrebounded the Lakers 16-8 in the third quarter. The turning point of the game came when the Lakers were up 60-55 and the Hawks grabbed three consecutive offensive rebounds in one possession. They ended their possession with a three for Korver, who extended his streak of three pointers in consecutive games to 94 and at the same time gave the Hawks plenty of momentum. Atlanta would eventually take the lead a few minutes later and never look back.

But the story was Kobe’s ineffectiveness once again. For the third time since his comeback, Kobe scored fewer than 10 points. He failed to make a three pointer today and is now shooting 2-for-15 from downtown. Once again, his turnover numbers were sky high as he coughed up the ball five times. Lastly, he only shot one free throw and it was on a technical. Kobe is known for earning calls and getting to the line. However, we have yet to see him get to the line more than 10 times in a game – something he did 28 times last year.

The Lakers did receive solid production from Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry, and Nick Young – at least offensively.

Hill didn’t miss a shot – going 8-for-8 and scoring 21 points. Young was money from long distance – draining five three pointers. However, he was the only player on the team to hit a three as the Lakers went 5-for-21 from long distance. Henry, meanwhile, scored 18 off the bench. That said, the trio combined for a minus-20 and struggled defensively – especially in the second half.

For the Hawks, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap were key contributors. Teague dished out 10 assists and scored 17 points and Millsap added 18 in the win along with four steals.

The Lakers have a quick turnaround as they head to Memphis for a huge Western Conference showdown against the Grizzlies.

 

 

In only his second game back from injury, it’s difficult to avoid making almost every bit of analysis Kobe-centric. So, win or lose, the focus will shift his way and the tone of the conversation will shift away from the what the team did well (or not) to what Kobe did well or not. On that note, let’s look at Kobe first…

Number 24 looked much better tonight than he did on Sunday, showing better decisiveness in nearly everything he did and making sharper decisions in the process. His pass/shot decisions were worlds better than what they were against the Raptors and that showed up clearly in the box score where he tallied 20 points on 6-11 shooting handing out 3 assists to (only) 3 turnovers (compared to the 8 he had against the Raptors). Kobe’s movement in the full court wasn’t much better than what he showed on Sunday (more on this later), but he was much more crisp in how he moved in the half court, making sharp cuts to the ball and in backdoor plays on several occasions and showing good change of direction on more than a handful of possessions.

These are the positives that come from this game; the easily identifiable progress he made from his first game back to his second. But just as some of these improvements were clear, so was the fact that integrating Kobe back into the lineup has (and will continue to) provide hiccups that translate to adjustments from the way the team was playing before.

I tweeted that after the game and while some may interpret that as a dig at Kobe, it’s really not meant that way at all. Throughout the game what became quite evident is that Kobe is playing a style that mostly suits what he’s most comfortable doing and those aren’t really things that fit snugly into the style the team was playing before he came back. Kobe wants the ball in the mid post or the shallow wing. He wants to post up and play out of the triple threat. He wants to work in isolation, survey the floor and either create a good look for himself or draw the defense and kick the ball to an open teammate. We saw all of this on full display against the Suns.

These aren’t bad things. In fact, in many ways they are extremely effective ways to play this game. Kobe knows this because he’s played this way for the majority of his career and has had a lot of success doing it. It’s just not the way the team was playing before he rejoined them in the lineup.

Before Kobe came back, the team relied heavily on dribble penetration from the point guard out of the P&R or hand-off sequences at the top of the key and hard dives from their big men after they’d set screens in either one of these actions. When the ball was penetrated via the dribble or a pass to the diving big man, either shots were put up in the paint or passes were made out to perimeter players who either took shots in rhythm or swung the ball to the open man against a rotating defense (which then led to an open or semi-open shot before a close out fully arrived). Against the Suns, this wasn’t happening as often. You only need to see the box score and notice that the team only took 18 three point attempts (making only 5, which is as much of a problem as the low attempts) to see that the offense isn’t producing the same shots it has in the past.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is a thing. And that means an adjustment by players who have played one way for the first part of the season and now will need to start to play a different way. This will take time and while that time is passing, things won’t always look as good as you (or I) would like.

All that said, this game wasn’t lost because of the offense (at least not totally). Another quick glance at the box score reveals that the Suns made nearly 52% of their baskets while scoring 21 fastbreak points and 56 points in the paint. In other words, the Lakers’ defense mostly stunk. They couldn’t contain Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe all night and that duo combined to score 39 points while dishing out 14 assists. Add in Marcus Morris’ 22 points off the bench and the fact that the Lakers did not get enough stops is pretty obvious.

A lot of what the Suns did offensively was play at a tempo that bothered the Lakers. When Kobe and Pau shared the floor the team was at a clear speed deficiency. But it wasn’t just that the Suns outran the Lakers, it was that they out-quicked them too. In other words, the Lakers had severe issues transitioning from offense to defense (Kobe was a culprit in this, but so was Pau and several other Lakers who chased offensive rebounds but did not snare them) and that allowed the Suns to generate early offense. But, the Suns also used very good tempo within their half court offense to generate looks by attacking quickly and directly via penetration out of the P&R and off ball reversals when the Lakers closed out on shooters. These quick movements to the paint really bothered the Lakers’ defense and created a feeling that the team was often playing flatfooted against superior athletes.

This is another area where Kobe, in his current state of not yet having his full game legs, will need to make adjustments. Much like Gasol needs to (but still too often doesn’t), Kobe will need to position himself better defensively so that he can be in the right place at the right time to compensate for not having the burst he’d like to have. Over the past couple of seasons Kobe has lost more defensively than he has offensively, but coming off this injury he needs to compensate even more rather than just trying to gamble and hope it pays off. Because, while in the past those gambles may have worked and given him a sense that he could continue to try that style, as long as he’s a half beat (or more) behind those gambles will not work now.

This isn’t to rag on Kobe or blame the team’s defensive woes on him. An opponent doesn’t shoot 52% because of one guy. No one was particularly good on defense tonight and singling out Kobe would not be fair. I comment on him because he’s new and evaluating him is fresh, but the same trends of Nick Young and Wes Johnson committing bad fouls, Pau not helping well enough at the rim, and people not helping the helper when Hill leaves his man to block shots were on full display against the Suns and those errors cost the team many baskets.

All in all, then, this was a fairly bad loss even though it can be rationalized through the prism of adjusting to Kobe’s return and the Suns actually showing a lot of early season promise. There were certainly positives of Kobe playing better than he did on Sunday and the team finding good looks with him as a centerpiece shot creator. But there is still growth to be made and, much like in games before he came back, the team needs to play better defense consistently and can’t let bad offensive stretches define their effort level. These are things that already needed improvement but now that Kobe is back and the expectations for the team to play better are real, they really need to be better at them. Hopefully we start to see more consistency in these areas soon, especially since the adjustments that need to be made in other areas are very real.

*I didn’t mention this earlier in the recap, but this team misses Jordan Farmar something awful. Farmar was playing his best ball of the season when he got hurt and that makes it doubly worse, but just the simple fact that Blake is now the team’s only real PG makes finding suitable rotations quite challenging. One potential solution is to stagger Kobe and Blake more, but even that requires putting the ball in Kobe’s hands more off the dribble and the Suns game showed he’s probably most comfortable as an off the ball worker in the mid post and at the elbows. Ultimately, I am not sure where the team can go to get that creator and driver of the 2nd unit, but Farmar’s quickness on both ends of the floor is something that needs replacing but seemingly doesn’t have anyone to fill in. In other words, heal up quick Jordan. The team really misses what you bring.

First things first: It was nice to have Kobe Bryant back on the court. Just seeing him in the lineup and out there on the court was great and I’m looking forward to him and the team building on this first game back and using each proceeding game as a stepping stone towards what they can ultimately be this year. All that said, this game was a great reminder that with Kobe now back in the fold this team has a pretty big piece to incorporate and that will take time and will have some bumps along the way.

Kobe’s play offered spurts of encouragement and spells that showed how much improvement can still be made on his end. Let’s get the not as good stuff out of the way up front. On the night Kobe had 8 turnovers, mostly on plays where he either forced passes into too small a window or misread a play and simply passed the ball to the other team. His timing was off on multiple plays and it produced some plays that he will surely want back when he looks at them on film. Further, when looking for his own shot he was a bit tentative at times and looked to either give up the ball too early or didn’t press the action as he normally would. On one play, Kobe actually got by his man with a nice first step and was fouled from behind right as he left his feet. But rather than shoot and get to the FT line via a continuation, Kobe passed while in the air and the Lakers took the ball out on the side. What seemed clear to me is that Kobe was looking to fit in a bit too much to the style the team has played before this game and he was a little too pass happy.

On the other hand, Kobe did flash some very good playmaking on the night and showed that he hasn’t lost his feel for the game at all. While he only tallied 4 assists, he made several very good reads and was pretty decisive in where he wanted to go with the ball on any given possession. The ball rarely stuck in his hands for more than a few beats and when operating in the P&R he was mostly solid in stringing out his dribble and reading the play in front of him. Again, he got in trouble when he got sloppy with his delivery on some passes, but for the most part I was pleased with how he surveyed the floor and in his initial read of a play.

In terms of his ability to work off the dribble in isolation, I thought we got a mixed bag and come away with no definitive answer as to what he’s capable of doing at this point. On more than one occasion he was able to get a step on his man to gain an advantage off the dribble. That was countered, however, by other plays where he looked a step slow and not able to beat that initial layer of defensive pressure. As for his shot, it looked a bit flat and overall his legs didn’t yet seem game ready. There were not a lot of quick pull ups or explosive movements when working off the dribble, but his footwork looked solid and he looked very comfortable working out of the triple threat anywhere on the court.

All in all, none of what we saw was a surprise and at this point I can’t say I’m overly concerned about where he is. A lot of his issues looked to be a matter of timing and not yet having his full legs under him. Considering he hasn’t played a game in since last April and was talking about not yet having his “sea legs” the other day, what we saw should have been pretty much expected. Now, if he still doesn’t have his legs in a few weeks or still isn’t creating much separation off the dribble via sharp movements, I will reassess. But as of now, I consider tonight a mild success in terms of Kobe as an individual.

From a team standpoint, this first game showed that there is much work to do in terms of sorting out lineups and rotations. The Lakers’ best three players tonight were Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry. All three of those guys are natural shooting guards and down the stretch, when he had to choose, Mike D’Antoni put in Kobe and took out Henry while leaving Meeks and Young in. After the game D’Antoni said that he wanted to play Kobe because that’s what will happen in the future so, I can see his logic there. What is harder to sell is leaving in Young while taking out Henry considering how well the latter had played to that point. In the moment I thought taking out Henry was a questionable move, but that was the decision and I can live with it. It may not have worked out tonight, but it could have. Again, it’s not like Young had played poorly to that point.

The larger question, though, is how the lineups will get sorted out when everyone is healthy and what the substitutions will be like to build successful lineups. This may be the biggest challenge facing D’Antoni and tonight was an example of that, especially on the wing.

What didn’t aid in matters, though, was that the team really didn’t have any big men play particularly well. Pau Gasol was dreadful overall and sat the entire fourth quarter. Robert Sacre was in over his head against Jonas Valanciunas and got into early foul trouble that landed him on the bench. But even when he was in the game, he wasn’t making much of an impact outside of a handful of well played team defensive possessions. Jordan Hill turned it on late in the game, working the glass and doing other Jordan Hill things, but wasn’t that strong in his early stint in the first half. I was glad that Hill got the minutes down the stretch because he was the big man playing the best, but overall the Raptors’ front court had their way with their Lakers’ counterparts and if you’re wondering where this game was lost, that’s where you will find your answers.

Overall, I am disappointed in the loss and wish on the night Kobe returned the team, as a whole, could have played better. There were some signs of life in stretches, but it is clear it will take time to incorporate Kobe back into the lineup and for him and the guys who share the court with him to find a cohesion and balance in how they operate. Some of this will be dependent on coaching, but more of it will depend on guys just getting familiar and acclimated in how they best work together.

There are still some things that concern (Pau, especially, with his bad ankle and heavy legs needs to find his way soon) and sorting them out as quickly as possible is obviously a priority. But, for one night at least, I will put those things in the back seat and just say it’s good to have #24 back.

That was quite the fun game. But in the end, the Blazers became the #1 team in the West (technically, since they beat the Spurs earlier this season) after beating the Lakers, 114-108.

The Lakers have been resilient for most of the season and they showed that in this game. L.A. was down, 21-4, at one point. But they caught the Blazers in the second half as they got a great boost from Xavier Henry and Robert Sacre. Unfortunately, Jordan Farmar was lost to a hamstring injury, which was pretty big considering how well he has played this season, especially the last few games. I was ready for Steve Blake to play the entire second half; the Lakers aren’t going to play until Friday so I didn’t see any problems with him going the distance.

Unfortunately, the Blazers’ shooting and ball movement overwhelmed the Lakers in the third. They dropped 41 in that quarter and it seemed like it was over by then. The Lakers’ starters couldn’t get anything going and Mike D’Antoni went with a ragtag bunch.

The weird line-up of Robert Sacre, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry (who played point in place of a tired Blake) got the Lakers back in the game. They were energetic on both sides of the ball (Xavier Henry’s dunks, Jodie Meeks’ threes, and Wesley Johnson’s block really got the Staples crowd unglued) and were able to get the team within one. But Wesley Matthews (who has been so good behind the arc this season) and Damian Lillard (26 points) made huge three-pointers. The Lakers really had no business being in a close game after being down 20 twice but they made it one hell of an entertaining contest. Like I’ve said many times in the past, sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Henry led the way with a career-high 27 points. Jodie Meeks had 20 points, Nick Young had 17, and Steve Blake had 13 points and nine assists. Robert Sacre had 12 points, a career-high for himself. And Shawne Williams (four points, eight rebounds) made big plays in the fourth as well. Pau Gasol played horribly (six points on 3/15 shooting, although a bad ankle is bothering him) after a few good games. The Lakers had won five of six coming into this game and this loss stops a little momentum but these guys are just so fun to watch since most of us had no expectations for the team. As for Portland, LaMarcus Aldridge was nearly unstoppable early; he had 27 points overall.

Funny thing is that the Lakers are 9-9. That’s a better 18-game start than last year’s team when they were 8-10; that squad was superstar-laden if you guys remember *cough*. The Lakers don’t play again until Friday when they go to Sleep Train Arena (zzzzzzzzz) to face the Sacramento Kings. A certain dude who wears #24 may come back to the Lakers for that game (sorry; it’s not Lloyd Daniels or Jim Jackson). THAT could be interesting.

In the meantime, we’ll have a little injury watch (Farmar, Steve Nash, Kobe) this week before the Lakers play again. The Lakers just had four straight days off two weeks ago, too. Weird scheduling.

Entertaining game, everybody.