So far, so good for the purple and gold...
Much, much more below the jump...
With about 3:40 remaining in the third quarter, Kobe Bryant found himself stuck in the right corner, unable to get off his shot. He moved the ball up the right wing to Derek Fisher, who immediately whipped the ball inside to Pau Gasol at the mid-post. With Robin Lopez on his back, Pau executed a perfect no-look bounce pass to a cutting Bryant, who rose to finish at the rim, absorbing a late push- literally- from Channing Frye for the bucket and a little value add in the "and-one."
Kobe dropped the freebie, and the Lakers were up 86-72.
Three passes in maybe- maybe- two-and-a-half seconds- a spectacular bit of execution from L.A.'s two best players, with an assist from the squad's resident on-floor Yoda. It was also at the heart of a 90 second explosion running a 10-point Lakers advantage to 19 and effectively icing the game. All nine points in the run were scored by Kobe or Gasol. It started with an impressive fall away jumper along the right baseline for Pau. Then the and-one from Kobe, who followed it with a dunk after Lamar Odom forced a turnover at the other end. Gasol added another jumper, and that was that.
The quarter belonged to Kobe, who hit seven of his 10 shots and poured in 21 of the 40 he hung on Phoenix. Gasol had eight on four-of-five from the floor, plus two dimes. He'd finish with 21.
Fans and media spend a lot of time around the water cooler, in front of microphones, and at keyboards breaking down matchups, looking for x-factors, and figuring out which sleeper could be the secret ingredient fueling one team's success. But at this time of year, the most effective recipe is to have a team's best players be the best guys on the floor. No question that was the case Monday for the Lakers, particularly in the third quarter.
Add in 19-19-3 from Odom, a genuine wild card if ever there was one, and the result is an impressive 21-point win in Game 1.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
"To be honest," Kobe said, "they missed a lot of shots that they've been making this entire postseason. We did a good job defensively, we rotated pretty well, but also they missed a lot of threes that they've been making. We've got to do a much better job in Game 2 and the rest of the series."
Kobe undersells L.A.'s defensive effort a little- rare would be the time he'd say they couldn't do better on that end of the floor- but no question, he's right. Phoenix missed some looks they've managed to knock down to this point. But the key word in Kobe's quote is "threes."
The Suns may be known for their incredible perimeter shooting. After all, they led the NBA in 3-point percentage by a mile (41.2 percent vs. 38.1 for Cleveland, the runner up) and are leading the pack from downtown this postseason. But the Suns didn't become the league's most efficient offense simply on the strength of long range bombs. They also are adept at generating easy looks inside off penetration and the pick and roll. Those are the opportunities the Lakers need to limit if they're to win the series, and Monday they did a good job.
L.A. doubled up Phoenix in the paint over the first two quarters (30 to 16), as the Suns stayed close thanks to 19 trips to the line. Aside from Robin Lopez, the beneficiary of a few chippies at the rim, Phoenix wasn't able to get much going in the paint.
As I mention in the video, I don't doubt there will be a game or two where the Suns get hot and threaten to shoot L.A. out of the gym. But if the Lakers can keep them out of the lane, it's hard to believe Phoenix can shoot its way to four wins.
After tracking down a missed fourth quarter trey from Kobe, Lamar Odom held the ball high over his head while surveying the floor, then brought it down to make a move. I guess a flight from Phoenix to L.A causes more jet lag than expected, because Goran Dragic's reaction boasted the speed of someone in another time zone. As a result, his swipe at the rock was mistimed by a good second and Lamar got smacked right in the chops. The foul was called and LO immediately doubled over from the effects of the pop. (Dragic immediately walked over to check on Odom and offer an apologetic pat on the butt, sparing the Slovenian the dishonor of becoming Raja Bell 2.0 for Lakers fans.)
Working the new possession, Lamar tried to lay the ball up and got swatted by Louis Amundson. Offensive board snagged, LO tried again for a layup, only to get by Amar'e Stoudemire. But as they say, third time's a charm if you're lucky enough to receive one. Or earn one, as was the case after LO fought to secure yet another loose ball, then got two points after S.T.A.T. was called for goal-tending.
Sequences like these often elicit a "Dude came to play!" reaction. But despite my admiration for the sequence, I uttered nothing of the kind, since it was apparent well before this triumphant hustle Odom showed up at Staples Center ready to rumble. A sweat was barely broken before a 19 point/19 rebound foundation had been laid. Just 2:06 of first quarter PT under his belt, Odom had already grabbed three rebounds and scored seven consecutive points, keying a run eventually putting the Lakers up 24-23 after a slow start.
They never trailed again.
From there, it was all smooth sailing for LO. 15 points and eight rebounds by halftime. A seven rebound final quarter, which featured three of his playoff career-high seven grabs on the offensive glass. Three assists. Stellar moments on defense, even holding his own when matched against Steve Nash on a pick-and-roll switch. On the surface, it would appear perfectly logical his +24 was the team's best +/- rating. But when you consider the game Kobe put together, it really speaks to the impact Lamar made in under 31 minutes.
"Lamar's capable of that, especially when hes involved early," said Ron Artest. "He's capable of turning the game around, causing mismatches and knowing down shots. Causing all kinds of havoc."
Odom's long been described as the Lakers' X-Factor, the guy most singularly capable of transforming the squad from very good to borderline unbeatable. Tonight demonstrated why. Beyond simply LO's contributions, there was the trickle down effect. The Laker bench has been justifiably criticized for its erratic postseason showing. The reserves take their cues from Odom, which is exactly as he prefers the situation as second unit leader. In the meantime, Phoenix's bench was a huge factor in their sweep of San Antonio, so perhaps this was LO's way of letting people know his crew wasn't showing up to the party outgunned.
"I didn't really want to wait," said Odom of his fast start. "I said to myself, if I'm going to have a bad game, I'm going to have a bad game swinging. I'm not going to wait for the game to come to me tonight. I'm going to try to attack."
"It jump started, no doubt about it," praised Phil Jackson. It got us started in that first quarter and really got us back in the ball game quick. His rebounding in the second half was very instrumental."
Not to mention inspirational. Shannon Brown expressed how he and his fellow reserves fed off Odom's immediate urgency, and in turn, upped their own ante. Jordan Farmar had 10 points and five assists. Josh Powell had a monster dunk putting back a missed layup from Kobe. Brown chipped in nine, and brought down the house while drawing a blocking foul on Jason Richardson. Sure, the dunk attempt fell short, but when you're floating through the air like an outtake from The Matrix, fans will generally forgive when the finished product isn't picture perfect.
Like I said, nobody in the crowd appeared to want their money back.
Brown may have been the one elevating, but Odom's game was truly elevated, a reminder of the mark he's capable of making against a Phoenix team with no immediate candidate to guard him. He's been trending upward after a largely ineffective first round, but it would be nice to see him leave fingerprints all over the Western Conference Finals. His teammates certainly think he's capable.
"He's so good," smiled Artest. "We love when he plays his game. When he's just attacking and passing. Get some assists. Get some layups. The jump shot. That's him. I've played with Lamar since I was a kid. I like to see him play when he's playing with confidence."
57: Kobe's percentage on shots from 16 feet and beyond, easily besting his percentage from the first two rounds (37.5). (Thanks to ESPN Stats and Information for that lil' nugget.) Even better, he earned himself 12 free throws, despite playing under 36 minutes and sitting out most of the fourth quarter. It's the third time in four games Bryant has had over 10 free throws in a game, as good an indication as any he's feeling pretty spry despite a right knee wonky enough to require draining during the week off.
1: The number of threes converted by Ron Artest. Inside the arc, he was five of nine, and overall he chipped in with five dimes. It wasn't a bad night by any stretch for him. Artest was able to get inside, and dished out five assists. But man alive, that shooting slump doesn't seem like it's going anywhere soon.
4: Phoenix's points off the break. Alvin Gentry said after the Suns aren't necessarily a true fast break squad- "That's kind of a misnomer about our team," he explained- but a) they're certainly capable of piling up points in transition, and b) four points allowed translates to solid work against any team. Beyond being very conscious of releasing defensively, the Lakers made their lives easier by shooting well (58 percent), piling up points inside (46 points in the paint on 43 tries), aggressively going after offensive boards (12 off 37 misses, a robust 32 percent recovery rate), and only turning the ball over nine times.
Nash, on his concerns going forward: "You know, I think our room for error is small. They're a lot bigger than we are. they had a lot of points in the paint. They're probably going to continue to be taller than us as the series goes on, so we've got to try and cut down on some of those transition buckets, offensive rebounds, you know, defensive lapses. Whatever it is."
Gentry, on Kobe's 40 points: "I still think we can withstand the 40 that Kobe got. The way he got those points, when he's in that zone like he is tonight,k there's really not a whole lot you can do about it... They had guys that stepped up. Farmar played solid for them. Artest did a good job for them. We can withstand Kobe and Pau having the games that they had, but when other guys step up, especially Lamar with 19 and 19, then that gets to be really tough. And if you add one more guy to the mix, then they're almost impossible to beat when they add that fourth guy in that plays well."
Artest, on tonight's game: "It wasn't easy. It's never easy. If it was easy, you lose. We played hard, put it together, executed. It's only one game. Win or lose- win by one, win by 30- it's just a win."
Kobe, on the possibility of seeing more attention in Game 2: "Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we just move the ball to an open guy. They send to guys at me, I've done my job. I've made them make adjustments and get easy opportunities for my teammates. Yeah, we'll be ready if that happens."
Shannon Brown, on his near-dunk, Kobe's performance, and the bench play:
Derek Fisher, on the benefit of practice time:
Pau Gasol on the Game 1 victory: