Well, that looked familiar.
Using their advantages inside and that Kobe Bryant guy on the wing, the Lakers took down the Suns on 114-106 on Friday night. Extending their road opener winning streak to 6 straight seasons, starting their season 2-0, and earning Phil Jackson his 1,100th career coaching victory all in the same evening (the quickest coach to ever get there, by the way). All in all, a pretty good night I’d say.
Really, this incarnation of the Suns doesn’t have too much of a chance against this specific Laker team. Their margin for error against a team with as much size, as much skill, and that executes as well as this Lakers team is just too slim. Phoenix would have to play a nearly perfect game. We saw that last spring in the western conference finals and we saw it again last night.
Phoenix played with heart and they executed their sets. Steve Nash, while relatively contained individually (8 points, 9 assists), still captained a terrific offense by pushing the ball and getting his players the rock in their sweet spots. Countless times he hit Robin Lopez with pin point passes as he dove to the hoop on P&R’s. Other times he threw the ball ahead to Grant Hill to work off the dribble in space and shoot his (still) killer mid-range jumper. When Nash went to the bench, Goran Dragic seamlessly replaced him by executing nearly as flawlessly, continuing to keep the Suns in the game with his ability to create off the dribble to either score or set up his teammates. Really, the Suns played a very good game on offense ending the night with an efficiency rating of 109.6 (a bit below their standard set in year’s past, but still very good).
But it wasn’t enough. Not against this Laker team. This Laker team just has too much talent. Kobe Bryant is like a bull that sees red when he travels to the Arizona desert. He may not yet be 100%, but he’s inching closer to that mark and last night showed how close he is. #24 shot 9-19 from the field, scored 25 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and tallied 3 assists. He showed excellent lift on his jumper (for the most part), and again showed comfort backing down players from the extended wing to earn the good post position that set up his turn around jumper. Last night, Kobe was looking more like Kobe again and that’s something that opponents should start to worry about.
But the real difference makers in this game were the Lakers big men. When Gasol and Odom see “Suns” on the schedule they must get giddy. Even before Amar’e Stoudemire became a Knickerbocker, the Lakers bigs have had their way on the Suns’ interior. But now that the remaining bigs are Robin Lopez (who had a very good game last night and continues justify his draft position in his 3rd season) and Channing Frye, the Suns have virtually no shot of slowing down the Lakers big men – especially if they’re not going to battle for position, show any defensive variety with half or full fronts, or use any other tricks to disrupt the comfort zone of LA’s big men. Pau narrowly missed a triple-double on the night with his line of 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists while Odom beasted his way to 18 points (on 12 shots) and 17 rebounds with 5 dimes. The assist numbers for both players is especially staggering as they dissected the Suns defense by hitting cutters diving to the hoop and wide open shooters spotting up on the perimeter any time the defense over-helped in any way. There’s just a gulf between the quality of big that the Lakers offer and that of the Suns – a gulf that will only widen when Andrew Bynum returns.
To top off this game, the Lakers bench again showed that they are a unit to be reckoned with. Blake, Barnes, and Brown are all playing high caliber ball and have been since early in the preseason. They’re showing a chemistry on both offense and defense that this team hasn’t seen from its reserves since the great run of 2008. They’re all playing so well that it’s really difficult to even single one of them out as being the key player for the unit. Blake is obviously the general of the group, showing poise and a feel for getting players the ball that everyone benefits off of. While Brown (who still has some gunner in him) is proving a quality bench scorer that may well average double digit points off the pine this season. And then there’s Barnes who continues to do all the little things like he’s a SF version of Lamar Odom. He hits the glass hard and just finds ways to the basketball either when it’s loose or when by slashing to the cup to make himself available for a pass. Many are clamoring to find this group a nickname, but handing out monikers really isn’t my deal. For now, I’ll just call them difference makers and leave it at that.
Two games into the year and the Lakers have two wins. It’s to be expected, but I’m still excited nonetheless. This team is showing grit and flair. It’s business-like and still having fun. The starters and bench are showing a rapport both while playing on the court and when cheering each other when off it. This is a team, a great one at that. Even the guys that aren’t getting much burn seem engaged on the bench and ready to contribute if their number gets called. And, again, Bynum isn’t even back yet. The journey has only just started but I can already see that this team has the makings of something special.