While the common perception after the NBA All-Star break was the Lakers were eyeing the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and behind the San Antonio Spurs, the truth is the Lakers are now gunning for every team in front of them in the league (outside of San Antonio, of course, which is six games clear) with 14 games left in the season.
After beating the Orlando Magic 97-84 on Monday to move their post All-Star break to 10-1, the Lakers are now within a game of the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and the Mavericks, who the Lakers beat last Saturday, for the No. 2 seed in the league.
“We’re paying attention to it,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before the Magic game. “It looks like the Nets are going to beat Boston tonight so that does put us in a comparable position to them. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it anymore.”
Well, the Lakers can continue winning, which is something they haven’t had much trouble doing since the All-Star break.
1. Andrew Bynum
Against Dwight Howard, the player most Lakers fans are hoping comes to Los Angeles to man the middle when he becomes a free agent in 2012, Bynum played perhaps the best first quarter of his career (11 rebounds, six points and three blocked shots). Bynum got into foul trouble early in the second quarter, picking up two, and only played a little over three minutes with three fouls in the second quarter.
When Bynum was in the game he controlled the paint and set the tempo for the Lakers, finishing with 10 points, tying a career high with 18 rebounds and four blocks in just 28 minutes. Howard finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked in 43 minutes. The most telling stat when comparing Bynum and Howard, however, is the turnovers. Howard finished with 9 turnovers compared to none for Bynum. Howard’s turnovers contributed to the 18 turnovers Orlando had as a team which lead to 20 points for the Lakers while Los Angeles took surprisingly good care of the ball, turning it over five times leading to three points for Orlando.
2. Derek Fisher
With a couple of acrobatic lay-ups in the paint and a pair of big three-pointers, Lakers fans had to be wondering if it was already June. After his backup Steve Blake had his best game as a Laker, Fisher perhaps not-so coincidentally had his best game of the season, scoring 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and adding a pair of steals and assists.
3. Kobe Bryant
The mere fact Bryant started the game and ended up playing 31 minutes without any noticeable discomfort was a highlight. Bryant finished with 16 points, five rebounds and 4 assists and was a force defensively. He forced two second half turnovers and brought the crowd to their feet after forcing Jason Richardson to lose the ball out of bounds and proceeded to hit himself in the head as if he was a UFC fighter before walking back to the bench.
1. Kobe Bryant
While Bryant’s presence on the court was a highlight, his actual performance in the game, at least offensively, was more of a lowlight. In fact, at one point in the second quarter when Bryant missed all four of his shot attempts, a fan yelled, “Hey Phil, take out Kobe!” When Bryant was announced before the game, he received his loudest ovation of the season but by the half that had all subsided. Bryant hit 7-of-19 shots for the game and was forcing a good number of them. After he was taken out of the game, he ran to the locker room to get treatment on his sprained ankle, which will now get four more days to heal before the Lakers play the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center.
2. Ron Artest
You just never know what you’re going to get with Artest and on Monday it wasn’t much. Artest finished with six points on 2-of-7 shooting and wasn’t much of a factor in the game. It was reminiscent of the Artest we had seen in the beginning of the season and not the player we had become accustomed to after the All-Star break.
3. Steve Blake
It was only natural for Blake to come back to Earth after his best game of the season but this was a bigger crash landing than the team expected. Blake’s stat line was filled with zeros after going 0-for-1 on the game with zero points. He did add two assists but that was about all he accomplished in his 18 minutes on the court.