The Lakers rightly ought to go on to win a bunch of games this year, but not many will be grittier than this one. They spent much of the game running through mud- playing hard, but they certainly not well, and there wasn't much energy to feed off in the arena, with the Staples crowd basically split in half between L.A.'s two squads.
But while the offense bogged down, the defense stood up, forcing critical turnovers. And when they absolutely, positively needed points, Kobe Bryant came through with two big jumpers, and Derek Fisher finished off the Clippers with- and I totally called this as the Lakers came out of the timeout- a driving layup on a play starting well beyond the three point line.
As I've always said, the Clippers have a ton of trouble defending slow point guards, right?
More to come, but here's the quick breakdown...
Kobe led the way in scoring with 24 on a nice nine-for-15 clip, and cranked up his game in the clutch (we've seen this movie). He had a pretty good game, but there were some other high points, too. Namely...
Shannon Brown- For the record, I believe he's now shooting 67 percent from around 40 feet and beyond after his third quarter heave with one second left cut a nine point Clippers lead down to six. But while that was a bit of a prayer (to say the least) the rest of his offensive game was hardly an accident. Brown's jumper, which had deserted him for a few games during the losing streak, was back in a big way on Wednesday. He finished four-of-four from beyond the arc en route to 16 points, but more importantly provided critical points for a Lakers team struggling to score for most of the first three quarters, notching 11 points after entering the game for Kobe with 3:22 to play in the third.
In the fourth as the Lakers rallied, Brown started distributing, assisting on two of the team's first four field goals of the fourth quarter. As he has for much of the season, after the game Brown pointed not just to a confidence in his skills, but a greater understanding of when and where he'll find his shot, and how he can create opportunities for teammates.
"It's maturing. Getting older and maturing in the offense, maturing in every part of my basketball game. Just getting better," he said. "I think [things have slowed down]. Things have slowed down a whole lot. That's one of the things I'm able to do- slow down and see what's going on out there, and be able to execute."
That Brown takes such pride in his development on the mental end of things is among the best signs this year's leap is a) not a mirage, and b) not yet at its ceiling.
Matt Barnes- Like Brown, Barnes made his presence felt. The numbers weren't quite as gaudy, but after a sub-par game Tuesday against the Wizards, he responded with plenty of activity against the Clippers tonight, particularly handy on a night where the team as a whole was sluggish offensively. He worked through the lane, made his typically hard cuts, and hit the glass.
Defense- It's more difficult to keep points off the board when you don't score, when shot selection isn't exactly primo, and guys are working on the wrong end of a back to back, but the Lakers managed to do a pretty good job on that end of the floor tonight. Through three quarters, the Clippers had 71 points- 17 of which came off turnovers at the other end- and were just under 43 percent from the floor. Blake Griffin missed 10 of his 15 shots. In the fourth, the Lakers continued to drag down the Clippers' percentages, and the point total against was very respectable. Generally speaking, when they weren't giving the ball away and afforded themselves a chance to set themselves defensively, the Lakers got stops.
More importantly, when the Lakers did rally- at the end of the third and fourth quarters- they did it with defense, forcing turnovers and turning them into points at the other end. Needing a stop with under a minute to go and down by three, they did one better. Ron Artest stole the ball from Eric Gordon, and the Lakers turned it into a short Kobe Bryant jumper at the other end. Out of a Lakers timeout, Artest did it again, stealing a Gordon pass. Again, Kobe made the Clippers pay at the other end, hitting a jumper from the wing.
Phil Jackson said after he couldn't think of a game this season where they flat out won it with defense. He won't get any disagreement from me.
"We did a good job being active," Kobe said. "Forced them to take tougher shots. We got our hands on balls, got deflections, got out in transition, and it got us going."
Artest deserves praise, too, for his work on Griffin. It was an inelegant game offensively (see below), but beyond the steals helping seal the game, he helped neutralize the Clippers rook, doing what he does well: putting his body on another, and making that guy work. Asked for his reaction to Artest's D, Kobe said "It's about time," going on to say he was happy to see Artest finally get truly aggressive in what is, as a player, his wheelhouse.
It sounds a little harsh, but really it's an affirmation. This is how you play, Ron. Go do it every night.
1. Pau Gasol- Theo Ratliff is already out, and tonight Derrick Caracter suffered a first half injury keeping him on the bench the rest of the way, meaning once again Gasol's minutes were high. It showed. He was a tired-legged 4-of-13 from the floor, and by the fourth quarter could barely get any elevation, evidenced most clearly when Griffen swatted a hook shot Gasol tried to launch almost off his hip without leaving the floor. He was also part of the problem when it came to defensive rebounding. More than once, Jordan managed to find position on Gasol, leading to extra chances for the home team. He did contribute 10 boards, and added five assists, but the poor percentage from the floor speaks volumes.
"We've been concerned," Fisher said about Gasol's burden. "It's not a when do you get concerned. That was yesterday, last week, weeks ago. We can't ask him to carry that type of load night in and night out, and expect him to be able to dominate the paint offensively and defensively, rebound, block shots, rotate, get up and help on the pick and roll, bang and play one-on-one offensively and score baskets. It's a lot to ask of anyone."
They are, Fish said, counting the days until Andrew Bynum gets back. That said, he needs to be healthy, and in the long run, once everyone has returned Fisher thinks Gasol will be fine. "It's still early. We're still in the 20's, in terms of games played."
Asked if he has any games at center in him, the contact-craving vet smiled. "I surely do."
Ron Artest's Offense: The late game steals were huge, and he was a major force defensively on and off the ball. But Artest did plenty of damage on the other end, missing eight of 10 shots including some of the brickiest bricks you'll ever see. Too often when he was left alone on the perimeter, Artest obliged by launching. He's capable of putting the ball on the floor and probing a little. Make the defense work, and try to find a better shot.
Basically, at this point, he ought to approach offense like doctors do patients: First do no harm.
Miscellaneous: Pick a few things. They were hurt on the boards, surrendering 13 ORB's and losing the overall battle 52-39. Lamar Odom fouled out on a night where the Lakers couldn't afford him to foul out, and struggled while he was on the floor, particularly with Griffin's size. The offense for nearly the entire game was pretty bad, though in the end they managed to bring their shooting percentage up to 42.5. Caracter's injury again brought attention to their thin front line.
Tough game on a few levels, but they won.
Much more to come.