Move over Boston, there's a new bearer of the "best game of the year" crown. Wednesday's overtime win over Portland in the Rose Garden easily becomes the defining win of the season for the Lakers, who had to eat up a seven point deficit with under two minutes to play against a team entering the game with six straight wins in a building in which they've historically struggled.
Great stuff for L.A., on the heels of a dominant win Tuesday night against Atlanta. The All-Star break apparently did them some good. Here's how it broke down.
1. Ron Artest. Flat. Out. Huge. He's had big games over the course of his relatively short Lakers career (you might remember a certain shot in a certain Finals game last season), but this very well could have been the best. Certainly it's his best of this season. 24 points on eight-of-13 from the floor, plus five-of-six from beyond the arc. Artest was strong early, canning a triple for L.A.'s first points of the game, and critical late, drilling another triple late in regulation. In the five free minutes, Artest hit another three putting the Lakers up 95-92, and hauled down a critical offensive rebound leading to the Kobe Bryant jumper effectively giving the L.A. the game.
There was a noticeable bounce in his step all night, and an aggressiveness in his decision making probably more important than the production himself. The days he's seemed this confident and decisive with the ball- catching and driving in the first half or coming over a screen to set himself up for a jumper in the second half, for example- have been few and far between.
2. Kobe Bryant. In total, it was a game littered with highs and lows for Kobe. He started missing seven of his first nine shots,and was only four-for-15 at halftime. But in the third quarter, he found the range, making five of seven. And while there were a few dicey moments down the stretch- coming out of a timeout with about 3:30 to play, Kobe was apparently unaware of the shot clock and failed to shoot before the buzzer- but when crunch time got crunchiest, Bryant was huge. He hit a pair of jumpers in the final minute of play, one from the baseline, the other a tough 15-footer from higher up the floor. In OT, he grabbed a lazy Andre Miller pass with about a minute to play, and hit the shot effectively giving the Lakers the win.
So strong was his rally from the floor Bryant's final shooting line- 14-of-31- doesn't seem at all bad. Neither did the 37 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and three steals. It's been a while since we've seen Bryant deliver like this at the end of a game (the Lakers really haven't played all that many tight games this year, win or lose), and I suspect the sight was a welcome one for fans.
3. Pau Gasol. 18 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and a block. Gasol picked up a critically important and-one with just over a minute to play, giving the Lakers a lead in overtime after the Blazers had briefly put themselves up two on an Miller jumper. As is often the case, Gasol popped up in very important moments, but overall provided at least some counterbalance to LaMarcus Aldridge, who dominated early and overall was very strong for Portland.
4. Lamar Odom. It was bound to happen at some point. Having been the team's most consistent player over the first 40-plus games, Odom has finally hit a patch of poor play. He entered the game shooting a hair over 42 percent this month, and in his last five games snared only 25 rebounds, well off his season average. For much of Wednesday's game, it looked like Odom would again be invisible. Deep into the fourth quarter, he had more turnovers (three) and personal fouls (four) than rebounds (one). There were offensive fouls and questionable choices. Even when things went well- a strong bucket inside against contact from Joel Przybilla about halfway through the fourth- they didn't. Believing (rightly, it seemed) he'd been fouled, Odom earned a T on his way back up the floor.
But putting aside the yapping-related technical, Odom didn't fade as the night went on. Instead, he turned the negative momentum and made himself a force down the stretch. Odom hit a three to start L.A.'s scoring in overtime, and when Artest grabbed the aforementioned critical ORB, it was Odom who had kept the ball alive off the initial miss. His final line- 13/4/2- doesn't look like much, but the Lakers don't win if L.O. doesn't find a way to contribute off a terrible start.
5. Shooting. It would have been a shame to squander a night where the Lakers made 61 percent of their threes, because such nights don't come along often.
1. Turnovers. The Lakers had two major problems in the first half- Aldridge and turnovers. The first is reasonably easy to explain away, given Aldridge came into the game averaging just under 30 points a game in February. He hit just about every shot available, no matter the number of hands in his face, over the first 24 minutes, going into the break with 18 points. The latter, though, is on L.A. Nine first half turnovers, some off the dribble, some on offensive fouls, stymied L.A.'s offense and fueled Portland's, as the Blazers earned a whopping 17 points off giveaways in the first two quarters.
Aldridge was slowed at least somewhat in the second half, but after tightening things up early in the second half, turnovers again bit the Lakers. They'd finish with 17, leading to 25 points for Portland. Gasol led the way with four, including two absolutely awful gifts benefiting Aldridge, including a loose outlet under his own basket forcing him to send Portland's star to the line.
L.A. wins this game, perhaps in a walk, if they take better care of the ball.
2. Bench Play. Derrick Caracter, pressed into service thanks to L.O.'s foul trouble, showed energy in his three minutes of burn, but as it has been far too often of late, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown failed to make an impact. Brown missed four of his five shots, and Blake missed his only hoist of the night. All told, the pair combined for two points, two assists, and a rebound in about 34 combined minutes. Given Derek Fisher's relatively quiet night offensively (six points on pair of triples), it means L.A.'s backcourt was whatever Bryant could muster. (To his credit, Fish was a +25 on the night, easily a team high, so good things happened while he was out there.)
3. Andrew Bynum. Tuesday night against Atlanta, Bynum scored only five points, but it didn't matter because he grabbed 15 boards, blocked three shots, and changed countless others. He was a beast on the defensive side of the ball. Tonight, he scored just six points in about 30 minutes, with four rebounds. Some of it is related to moving out on the floor against Aldridge in spots, but overall he wasn't much of a factor.