The Lakers can win games in a variety of ways. This team can outscore an opponent or out-grind them. They can kill teams inside or snipe from the perimeter. They have stars in Kobe and Gasol that, when playing at peak performance, can control a game and they also have a more than capable bench that can make the difference between defeat and victory. And today, against the Raptors, it was the bench that stepped up and carried the game home as the Lakers won their 5th straight road game and 6th in 7 tries defeating the Raps 120-110 to close a very successful road trip.
The game started with the Lakers looking energetic on offense, but not bringing the needed intensity on defense to slow down a depleted but energetic Raptors team. Toronto poured in 34 first quarter points by making 15 of their 25 shots to the tune of an offensive efficiency of 136. Seemingly every shot the Raptors took in the opening minutes was a good one and that fueled their confidence to the point that even when the Lakers defense did pick up, it didn’t really matter as the shots still fell. There was no better example of this than made 20 footers from Amir Johnson spurred on by his easy interior makes earlier in the frame (culminating in a 6-6 period for Amir).
And a lot of the Raptors early offensive success was fueled not only by the Lakers suspect defense but also their questionable decision making on offense. The Lakers had 6 first quarter turnovers and those miscues only allowed the pace of the game to shift more into the up and down affair that the Raptors wanted to play. This is a style of play the Lakers can have success with too – something their 28 first quarter points show – but overall, this style favored Toronto as the scoreboard would prove after the first 12 minutes.
But in the 2nd quarter, the game would start to stabilize as Luke Walton and Andrew Bynum started to make an impact on the game. Walton’s presence shifted the focus from an all open court, all the time style to one that was more balanced with half court action. Luke (and Blake) really calmed the team down by looking to initiate the offense when pushing the ball didn’t lead to easy baskets immediately. And once the Lakers got the game into the half court, they were able to get the ball inside, dominate the backboards, and turn the game in their favor. This is where Andrew Bynum’s presence also started to make an impact. Bynum – who played his best game since returning by pouring in 16 points and grabbing 7 rebounds – proved too big for the shorthanded Raps to handle as he gobbled up offensive rebounds and earned trips to the foul line (sinking 8 of 10 for the game) after establishing good position in the paint and receiving the ball in positions to do damage. This change in the tempo allowed the Lakers to limit the Raps to only 15 2nd quarter points and ultimately enabled the road team to take a healthy 8 point lead into the half with statistical advantages in every category that implied a blowout was coming in the 2nd half.
However, that blowout wouldn’t come easy as the Lakers repeated the same mistakes in the 3rd quarter that they did in the 1st. Sloppy play and suspect defense allowed the Raps to climb back into the game. Carried by DeMar DeRozan’s 19 point outburst, the Raptors kept the game within striking distance and had the momentum going into the final period after Luke Walton’s long inbound turned into a buzzer beating half court shot by Leandro Barbosa at the end of the 3rd quarter.
Again, though, the Lakers bench was up to the challenge and would put their stamp on the game. Walton and Bynum brought back their 2nd quarter tricks, but this time they were joined by Blake, Barnes, and Brown. The killer B’s played nearly the entire final frame and hit long jumpers, grabbed key rebounds, and played impressive defense to keep the Raptors at bay. All three provided quality execution rather than any real highlight moments and with every possession found ways to put further the distance between the two teams. By the time the starters reentered the game, the outcome was secure and the Lakers only needed to run out the clock by matching baskets with the home team. A task that they accomplished with relative ease.
So the Lakers return home winning 6 of their 7 games on this road trip (including the Staples Center match up with the Clips). They’re now an impressive 11-5 on the road (any team that can win 2 of every 3 road games is elite) and they’ve only yet to start to put it together. I hate to sound like a broken record but as this team finds its stride it’s only going get better. Really, with Bynum’s return and continued solid play from the bench I’m not sure if this team has even scratched the surface of what it can be down the line. Which, in a way is a good thing as we all know that peaking now means much less than getting it done in May and June.