There seems to be a pattern developing here.
Using their defense as the catalyst and crisp offensive execution to remove any doubt about the outcome, the Lakers defeated the Hawks 101-87 to earn their 8th straight win and continue their hot streak.
At this point, when trying to summarize the action from this game, I think it’d be easier to cut and paste portions from recaps from the past two weeks because the Lakers are bringing the same formula game after game and simply outclassing teams right now.
And it starts on defense. Simply put, the Lakers defense was just too good. Atlanta was only able to summon 87 points on 39.8% shooting and only really hung around on offense because they grabbed a healthy number of offensive rebounds (16) and kept their turnovers low (10). But it wasn’t their shooting percentages or the actual point totals that impressed me most when looking at the Lakers’ D. It was the type of shots that Atlanta ended up taking on the majority of their possessions. Take a look at their shot chart from this game and you’ll see exactly what I mean. The Hawks relied nearly entirely on shots from outside the paint and even when they did attempt shots inside they weren’t particularly successful. Once again Andrew Bynum patrolled the paint masterfully blocking 3 shots, altering several others, and outright deterring countless more just by standing tall in the lane. When you throw in his 12 defensive rebounds (16 total – his third straight game with at least 16) Bynum’s impact on that side of the ball can’t be overstated.
The Lakers perimeter defense was also strong. Though Kirk Hinrich, Josh Smith and Al Horford were able to knock down the open jumpers the Lakers ceded to them, Joe Johnson struggled with Ron Artest’s hounding D and Marvin Williams could do nothing with Kobe playing particularly spirited D. Those latter two combined to shoot only 5-19 from the floor and when you add Jamal Crawford’s 2-8 from the field, the Lakers held Atlanta’s top three wing threats to only 24 points on 27 shots and only 26% shooting.
Offensively, though, is where the Lakers really did their damage. While the Hawks were settling for outside jumpers the Lakers attacked the paint relentlessly with post ups for Pau Gasol and Bynum to take advantage of their size advantage over Smith and Horford. Twelve of the Lakers’ first eighteen points came on baskets by their two bigs and of the other six points, four came on assists from Gasol.
And when the Lakers weren’t blatantly going into the paint for relatively easy scores, they were methodically running their offense in order to produce good looks. As was the case against the Spurs, the Lakers’ spacing was pristine and their off ball movement sublime. Players were doing everything they could to keep defenders occupied off the ball and then helping each other get open at seemingly every turn. On multiple possessions Hawks defenders had their heads on swivels trying to keep up with where their man was going while still trying to track the Laker with the ball. On one 2nd half possession the Lakers ran a simple strong side set with the ball going into Gasol on the right block and several Lakers – all showing exquisite timing – cut and flashed into the lane at separate times looking to get easy baskets in the paint only to have Gasol wait patiently and then attack with a beautiful delayed post move that yielded a lefty hook from inside 6 feet. All the action happening off the ball literally looked like a cyclone in the paint with multiple Hawks looking confused on where their help responsibilities were and wether or not they should leave their own man to double on Gasol.
Even on the few possessions where the Lakers weren’t running their sets cleanly – which all seemed to be near the end of the game – the Lakers were still able to salvage points simply on the strength of Kobe’s shot making ability. One memorable play had the ball getting deflected on a cross court pass only to end up in Kobe’s hands with the shot clock running down and #24 simply raising up and shooting a contested three pointer that found nothing but the bottom of the net. Those three points essentially iced the game for the Lakers, pushed Kobe’s total to 23 (he’d finish with 26 on 18 shots) and made it so his record breaking night – he passed Moses Malone for 6th on the all time scoring list earlier in the game when he scored his 13th point – would be a memorable one.
In the end, the Lakers are showing that they’re rounding into form at a time where it’s most needed. The opponents are getting more and more difficult, the push for playoff seeding is in full swing, and there’s precious time left in the regular season to actually improve. This is the team we’ve been looking for all season and suddenly, like a lightning bolt, they’re here. What’s even better is that their formula is the same each night and they’re staying true to their template: defend hard, use strong ball + player movement and inside play to control tempo on offense, rinse, repeat. Even though the bench is a bit more shaky than I’d like, the team as a whole is playing so well it’s not even an issue and doesn’t take away from what can only be described as dominating performances that show both great focus and physical ability. What more can I say, it’s just fun to be a Laker fan right now.