Our apologies to Fes and Kouf...
More analysis and video below.
Never let it be said Phil Jackson plays favorites to the bitter end. Sure, he's known for sticking by certain players, and in the eyes of some fans, such loyalty is capable of blinding him. For example, Luke Walton's reputation among the Laker Nation and even some media members is that of Phil's pet. The label may be a little strong, but there's no questioning PJ's fondness for Luke and the way he plays. He's even jokingly referred to the small forward as his "son." But there are sometimes lines to be drawn, even regarding fictitious blood ties. Thus, when the second quarter began, Walton was glued to the pine, despite this being the time he typically first checks into the game.
After Game 1's seriously disappointing fourth quarter collapse by the quintet of Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Lamar Odom and Walton, PJ clearly decided he wasn't screwing around to kick off the second frame. Sure, the Lakers were up four and rolling after a 20-10 run erased an early seven point deficit. Still, given the importance of protecting home court, chances weren't being taken. The unit would undergo a shake up, with Walton the odd man out.
There was, however, a certain amount of solace Luke could take while still in his warmups. For starters, his spot was nabbed by Kobe Bryant, which is certainly easier to swallow than losing PT to, say, Kyrylo Fesenko. (Or me, depending which scenario you consider the bigger insult.) Despite finishing just third in the MVP voting, with zero first place votes, Mamba's still a fairly good baller. If someone's gonna bump you, it might as well be 24.
More importantly, Kobe's time in Walton's place was, to say the least, productive for the Lakers.
In a little under five minutes, the Lakers pushed the lead from four to 11, with Bryant's fingertips on every basket except a hook shot and a putback from Bynum. Otherwise, he literally put the ball in the basket himself or assisted the man who did connect. While I hate the "facilitator" label slapped on Kobe while running the offense --the inference being unless he's looking to score the minute the ball touches his hands, Bryant's not playing "aggressively"-- I typically love the results when he's in however you define the "F word." Kobe's ability to keep the defense guessing and off-balance while switching his intentions within the offense's flow make him exceptionally dangerous, and tonight was no exception.
His work during this 4:47 stretch was the roundball equivalent of a conductor with his orchestra or a puppet master controlling seriously athletic marionettes. Just a brilliant manipulation of moving parts. The ball was kicked out at precisely the right moment off a double, setting up Farmar for a wide open trey. There was also great success as Kobe set up shop several times on the right block, a strategy proving particularly prolific during a regular season win over the Nuggets. Three straight layups were created from more or less the exact same spot on the floor. Each time, recognition of the approaching help defender and the cutting Laker led to a score so easy, Kobe barely broke a sweat while calling the shots.
"I got good position and from that position, the defense has to do something," explained Bryant. "Either leave alone by myself down there or they come down to double."
This being a Kobe Bryant performance, however, a little bit of scoring is a must. Hence, back-to-back dunks. The first was created in transition after Drew blocked Carlos Boozer, and Kobe threw down after such a head of steam his flailing body was propelled into the seats. Next came a home run pass from Peyton Manning. Kobe played Marvin Harrison (both Philly guys, after all) for the touchdown dunk, and Jerry Sloan called a 20 second timeout, now staring down an 11 point hole and momentum decidedly in the Lakers' direction.
Kobe's quarter concluded on shakier ground, as he missed three shots and turned the ball over twice. But those gaffes in no way detract from his impact at a critical time, or how well he demonstrated an ability to dominate a game while letting it come his way. Overwhelming, without being overbearing. At the top of his craft, this particular skill set is matched by few others in the league.
I understand the gasps elicited by Kobe's 40+ point outbursts. Believe me, my jaw has dropped countless times like everyone else. But these performances are often the ones blowing my mind the most.
18- The number of offensive rebounds for the Lakers on a night where they missed only 39 shots. That's an astonishing 46% of their misses corralled, which obviously had a huge impact on the outcome. Artest had five, including one in the first half where he pulled the increasingly common one-handed rebound-and-putback, all in one motion, all without leaving the floor. Gasol had five, Bynum four, Odom four more. In one fourth quarter sequence, Gasol hauled down a Fisher miss from the line. Artest eventually launched and missed from the left corner, but Odom tracked it down. Pau then set up Artest with a slick pass underneath, but Ron Ron blew the layup (a common theme, actually) before grabbing his own miss and finally getting the Lakers two points. Is there a category for Fourth Chance Points?
This is what happens when a team's only two centers (Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos) are terrible, leaving solid-but-small guys like Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap to try and keep L.A.'s seven footers off the boards. Or when a team has no answer for Kobe in the post. The Jazz are forced to throw so many bodies at the Lakers, it's hard for them to cover the weakside glass. (By the way, 18 also represents the rebounding margin for the Lakers on both ends- they won the battle for the glass 58-40.)
13- Blocked shots for the Lakers. Another "Hey, we're tall, you're not" statistic, but also indicative of L.A.'s defensive activity inside and the importance of having a full array of bigs available. There were straight up not-in-my-house swats, like a first quarter smackdown from Bynum (who had four overall) of Deron Williams after Utah's PG created penetration from the perimeter. Pau had a nice block of Millsap underneath, a function of his long arms and good positioning. For the second straight game, Odom's defense was big in the fourth quarter. He blocked Boozer on a play seemingly destined to result in a dunk with just over four minutes to play, then pinned a Wesley Matthews shot two minutes later. Both plays helped squelch any hopes of a comeback for the Jazz.
23.5- L.A.'s percentage from beyond the arc. It obviously didn't kill them tonight- the Lakers scored 111 points, were over 50 percent from the floor, and found their way to the line 36 times- but quietly an offensive deficiency reared its ugly head. If they can keep producing inside against Utah (and whatever teams they see going forward) and finding their way to the stripe the Lakers will be ok, but if they can't the offense is likely to once again stall out.
7- Buckets in close proximity to the hoop for Kobe Bryant, be they layups, baby hooks, or dunks. Some of them came on the break, some on penetration, others still on the block (where Kobe didn't always score, but generated many of his eight assists and earned a heap of free throws). Overall, 16 of his 22 shots came inside 17 feet. When Kobe operates so close to the rim, he's almost impossible to stop. It's a sign his knee is feeling better, because he's getting to spots on the floor he wasn't able to find much over the last few weeks.
3- The number of days the Lakers will have between games. They'll take Wednesday off before returning to practice Thursday and Friday. But more importantly, it's three days of rest for Kobe, Bynum, and all the other guys on the roster who need it. Yes, it'll be enough time for Williams to heal a little and for Andrei Kirilenko to finish his recovery, but I doubt the Lakers are concerned about what the break does for Utah. Instead, they're focused on themselves, and the positives coming from getting healthier. Kobe looked far more explosive tonight than he did through most of the Oklahoma City series, and it's reasonable to expect he'll take the floor Saturday for Game 3 with even more pop.
TURNOVERS KEEP IT CLOSE
The Lakers had more field goals (40-38, despite having 17 fewer attempts), rebounds (58-40), and free throw attempts (36-28). They were far more efficient on both sides of the floor. But the game was still close in the fourth quarter because L.A. also turned the ball over 20 times, accounting for 28 Utah points. 13 of the 20 came from Gasol and Bryant, and some were flat out careless (Kobe once committed the cardinal sin of trying to pass from the corner to the opposite wing, leading to an easy steal and dunk for the Jazz), but Phil Jackson also was quick to credit the Jazz.
"They were attacking the ball. Every time Pau or our bigs put the ball in a position where they could attack it, they're attacking. I thought Kobe, he had seven turnovers, might have been a little careless with the ball at times, but otherwise I think they're just aggressive to the ball, and are not going to let guys dribble in front of them, and [they'll] attack the dribbler," he said.
"It was probably a little bit of both (carelessness and Utah's aggressiveness). They were a little more aggressive to the ball tonight, and we didn't take care of it as well as we sometimes do," he said. "We've got to be careful with the passes, we've got to be aware of the double teams coming, keep the ball high and protect it. They're really good strippers [of the ball], so you've just got to make sure you protect the ball. Don't show it, and make the right pass. Hit the open guy."
Pau met the media with a bunch of nicks and cuts on his hands. I asked which players on the Jazz had the offending fingernails. He smiled. "Like I said, they're good strippers."
Everyone, from Jackson to Gasol to Fisher on down agreed 20 turnovers won't cut it Saturday in Salt Lake City. The Jazz are adept at forcing mistakes- Utah was fifth in the NBA in opponents turnover percentage- and L.A. will have to have a much greater awareness of where the hands are coming from. Nothing fuels a home crowd like mistakes from the visitors, particularly when they lead to easy points at the other end.
Utah is a tough enough place to play as it is- no need to make things easier.
Lamar Odom, who finished with 11 points, 15 boards, four assists and three blocks, on his performance: I'm getting better and better as the playoffs go on. There's always room for improvement. Just trying to do the small things. Block a shot here, a put-back there, an offensive rebound here. Just try to add up. Try to play an all-around game."
Gasol (22/15/2, with two blocks), on Bynum (17 points on seven-of-nine shooting, plus 14 boards- a career playoff high- and four blocks) playing through the injury to the meniscus in his right knee: "I was pleased. We are happy that Andrew has been playing the way he has been playing right now. He is just really productive and really agggressive. He is being everything that we need. It is a mater of knowing how to deal with your injuries and understanding what level of pain and discomfort you can suffer. He is definitely playing well and we want him to keep it up."
Bynum, on his comfort level in Game 3: "I was pretty comfortable, especially in the first half. Very aggressive. I was getting deper positions so I didn't have to take so many dribbles. They were doubling a lot. Double and triple teaming in the first game, so when I get deeper it's harder for the double to come and I can move the ball."
Derek Fisher, on going into Utah: "Now it's our turn to try and play in a way that we're attacking but being smart about what we do, so that we don't allow them to run back at us and keep that crowd at a high level."
THE BOTTOM LINE?
People focus a lot on style points, and try to extrapolate how the Lakers might fare against an Eastern Conference power given how they're playing right now. Everyone understands they have to improve, but the bottom line is this: The Lakers have played eight playoff games and won six of them.
If anybody has ever wondered what participating in the playoffs means to Andrew Bynum, check out the video below. After from missing 2008's postseason altogether and playing 2009's at half-strength, being healthy enough to contribute at a high level is all the motivation Drew needs to endure pain and discomfort. As he well knows, these chances don't always present themselves and can't be taken for granted.
Kobe may appreciate Drew gutting it out on a bad knee, but he's also chalking up the gritted teeth as the partial byproduct of peer pressure.
"I think the thing with the injuries is everybody kind of looks at each other and tries to figure out who's going to be the first punk. You know what I mean? Because we will talk about you like a dog. Like a chump. And nobody wants to be a chump."
Everyone wants to be one of the cool kids, and I think we all know who the B.M.O.C. is. Better hope Kobe doesn't start smoking or else the whole team will be sucking down Marlboros.
As a decided "non-chump," Kobe began the playoffs negotiating a variety of injuries. In particular, his finger, ankle, and knee have been problematic, most obviously during early part of the first round series against the Thunder. Playing four games every other day clearly exasperated an-already fragile condition. Ever since getting consecutive days of rest before Game 5 against OKC, however, there's been a decided pep in Bryant's step.
One assumes the three days between tonight's victory and Saturday's Game 3 will only help matters. Particularly since Kobe's assessment of his health as we speak is promising:
"I'm not there yet, but it's good enough to do what I do."