For all but 12 minutes of Tuesday night's 111-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center, the visitors were the better team. I mean that in the most literal sense, too. The Thunder won three of the four quarters allotted by the NBA's rulebook, aggressively attacking the paint with dribble penetration of the high screen- Russell Westbrook had 10 assists by halftime- and knocking down the jumpers LA made available.
Fortunately for the purple and gold, that 12 minute outlier proved enough to win.
One of the things that fascinates me about championship teams is how they can find, even if it's not sustained through 48 minutes and doesn't otherwise seem readily available, a stretch or two of high level play the opposition can't match. Down by seven at the half, the Lakers scored six points in the first 1:37 of the third quarter, tied it up at the 9:42 mark on a Ron Artest triple, and went up by five off a Kobe Bryant and-one at 6:32. That's an 18-6 run, effectively erasing 24 minutes of good work from a young Thunder squad and forcing them to play from behind the rest of the night. In the fourth, LA used a 7-0 burst starting with a great dish and dunk from Bryant to Andrew Bynum at 7:42, ending with a Kobe dunk at 6:23. All told, that's about eight minutes of 48 available where the Lakers were clearly the better team.
On the one hand, that's not a great ratio. On the other, it's encouraging. Great teams don't always dominate the opposition, instead they often send them out of the building wondering how they managed to lose. Oklahoma City played well. Scott Brooks praised his guys up and down after the game. Except they didn't win.
Kobe Bryant: Before we get to his rather remarkable game, let's talk about the most important thing, namely Kobe's health. With 5:08 to go in the fourth, Kobe came down awkwardly under the offensive glass, and seemed to tweak his left knee in a way that made folks in media row cringe and probably sent half the Staples crowd into some form of cardiac arrest. Phil Jackson said later he feared disaster, visions of Karl Malone dancing through his head. Kobe rose slowly from the floor, did a manual check on all his ligaments, and slowly began limping to the bench. By mid-court, he was moving more smoothly. When he reached the bench, he was fine. The whole thing played out like a hardwood version of one of those evolution of man diagrams. "I was concerned," he said. "I was very concerned." No worries. The guy finished the game, and seemed fine, and isn't worried about some sort of postgame swelling. "I'm Bruce Willis, man. I'm fine... Injuries don't affect me. I'm not going to sit here and say I have a finger or a knee (problem.) I'm fine. I'm more than fine." Certainly puts a button on that.
Back to the game... 14-26 shooting, 12-14 from the line. Only three trey attempts all night (he missed all of them), meaning he was attacking the basket in one form or another from the jump. Eight boards, six assists. Five TOs, sure, but after the game Kobe said he's adjusted to the splint on his right index finger, for all practical purposes. He certainly seems comfortable on the floor. One great sequence in the third saw him rip down a board and push the ball up the floor, where he forced Thabo Sefalosha onto the right block before making one of his patented turnaround jumpers. His control of the sequence, knowing exactly where he wanted to go with the ball, where he wanted to place the defender, and how he wanted to score over him was notable. This against a guy in Sefalosha who is as effective an opponent as Kobe tends to see.
Third Quarter Adjustments: The Lakers aren't exactly a pick and roll oriented group. They run it about as little as any team in the league. But after two sluggish quarters, the Lakers came out in the third and ran it to death, with great impact. Kobe with Pau Gasol, Kobe with Bynum, Kobe kicking to Derek Fisher in the corner. It all worked. "It was the way the teams were playing us. We weren't getting things accomplished inside I wanted to get accomplished. We just needed to change our attack from inside to dribble penetration to see what we could get. We were finding some guys open for the good shots. Ron hit some threes, Fish had a couple good looks." That the Lakers aren't dependent on the P'n'R like so many NBA teams suits them well, but when they break it out, it can be incredibly effective.
Gasol: 15/11, six blocked shots. If you're counting at home, and why not, that's eight straight double-doubles. Disturbingly consistent.
One Big Thing (metaphorically and literally):
Andrew Bynum: Before the game, Andy wondered if this might be a great game for Bynum to break out of his December swoon, giving sports radio folk something else to talk about for a few days. It wasn't exactly a triumph for Drew- 11 points on 3-9 shooting, seven boards, four blocks, four personals in 28:53, but it clearly wasn't a disaster, either. There were moments where Bynum was very effective, very active. He missed a bunch of shots early (0-5 in the first half, which PJ attributed to a combination of bad luck and poor footwork). Often offensive issues will take him out of every other facet of the game. Tonight, that wasn't totally the case. "He came back in the second half, and got some things accomplished," Jackson said. On the other hand, all of Bynum's seven rebounds came in the first half. Then again, seven of his 11 points came in the second. Bottom line, it's probably not going to be a vertical line for Bynum in terms of returning to his pre-Pau form. Watch the trends. Detroit and OKC were better than the games before. Not uniformly great, but better.
Good starts, he says, are key. "I have to be more efficient. So if I go out there and I'm not active right away, then it's hard to pick the numbers back up in the second half. that's something I've got to keep in my mind's eye, and really try to be effective in the first six minutes of the game," he told me after the game.
One Mixed Number:
Lamar Odom took 11 shots in 29 minutes. For him, that's like channeling his inner Monta Ellis. That aggressiveness is good. The six three pointers, though? Not so much. Whatever the reason, the Lakers haven't been able to get Odom established near the basket. He'll get to the rim on coast-to-coast drives off defensive rebounds, that patented play where he goes until a defender stops the ball, but Odom can't be content in the half court to hang by the three point line. It plays to his weaknesses and robs the Lakers of his strengths.
Kobe, on the knee:
Kobe, on his knee, Pau's talent:
Odom, on Kobe's knee, strong third quarter defense:
Phil Jackson, on missing shots inside: