Let's be honest, here; New Jersey basically lost their opportunity to win Saturday night's tussle with theAP/Bill Kostroun
Kobe Bryant uses a screen from Pau Gasol against the New Jersey Nets, Dec. 19, 2009.
Lakers once LA's team bus managed to work through blizzard conditions on the east coast and arrive from New York City at Izod Center. Unconfirmed reports had Nets coach/GM Kiki Vandeweghe dispatching lightly-used reserves Keyon Dooling and Terrence Williams to pile snow on as many cleared roads as they could find leading to the arena just to make it tough, and who could blame him?
It was a matchup of NBA titans vs. 125 pound weaklings. Literally nothing had to give. And against a team as wretched as New Jersey- they entered with a robust 2-25 mark- it can be said in general terms that anything interesting or meaningful coming out of the evening probably means something went wrong. Sure enough, the 103-84 final score was certainly comfortable enough for the Lakers, though it wasn't all pretty. Initially, it looked like the expected blowout would come quickly. The Lakers built up an eight point lead at the end of the first quarter, and were up by 10 after a Kobe Bryant triple with 5:33 to go in the half. From there, sloppiness, poor work against New Jersey's zone, and some inspired (it's all relative) play from the home team helped fuel a 16-4 run from the Nets heading into the break, a 48-46 Nets lead giving life to those hoping to see The Greatest Regular Season Upset In History.
There were some mitigating circumstances. Foul trouble was an issue, and combined with a game offering a chance for little used reserves to get a little burn, Phil Jackson played everyone on the bench save Sasha Vujacic over the first 24 minutes. (I'm not sure Adam Morrison knew he was even allowed to take off his sweats in the first quarter, but there he was, getting some early playing time.)
Fortunately, the 17 point second quarter was, to employ a modified Sick Boy, a blip on an otherwise upward trajectory. The Lakers again hit the gas in the third. Kobe, who finished with 29 points on 12-23 from the floor, scored LA's first six points of the frame, and Derek Fisher hit two big threes in the first five minutes. Defensively, LA clamped down, holding New Jersey to 16 points. The fourth wasn't much better for the home team, as the Nets scored only 20. All in all, it was a 56-36 second half for the Lakers, giving the final score a look everyone expected.
Kobe's all around game was spot on Saturday night. Beyond the 29, 24 also had 10 boards, five assists, and a blocked shot.
Lamar Odom, who always seems to light things up close to his New York home, had one of his better games of the month. 14 points, 12 boards, four assists. More importantly, his game, which has drifted a little too far from the rim for my tastes, got back near the basket.
The Lakers finished the first half with 17 assists on 20 field goals, and the game with 29 helps overall. Not a bad effort considering they were playing on the road.
Speaking of which, I've mentioned a few times how road trips for the Lakers aren't exactly the same as what other teams have to endure. While I wasn't at the Zod tonight, it was pretty clear a very healthy portion of the 17K+ in attendance weren't there to see the Nets. That included Spike Lee, I think.
Finally, I mentioned above that anything anyone remembers for more than 15 minutes after the final buzzer likely indicates a problem. Andrew Bynum's performance- four points, three boards, two turnovers, six fouls, 11 minutes- could qualify. After a genuinely All Star caliber start to the season, Bynum has suffered with the return of Pau Gasol to the lineup. While some drop in his numbers is to be expected (there's still only one ball), December has seen a disturbingly steady decline in his production, to the point where over his last five games he has more personal fouls (21) than rebounds (20). Saturday night, he was the victim of a couple tough whistles, but Bynum didn't move particularly well, and clearly never found any sort of rhythm. It's easy to overreact to his performance, particularly when measured against what he was doing to start the season while Gasol was on the shelf. The two of them didn't play together all that much last season, and right now it seems like Bynum is back to feeling his way, without some of the aggression and confidence he showed while one rung higher on LA's food chain. The Lakers don't necessarily need a dominant Bynum to win a title (he wasn't much of a factor in last year's postseason run), but he's absolutely the ingredient that transforms the Lakers from elite to damn near unbeatable. At some point, and we're not there, people will have reason to become concerned if Bynum's work (measured as much by impact as straight numbers) doesn't improve. And don't lose touch with the reality of the situation- he's still been a very productive player, and at 22 has scads of potential.
The Lakers now head to Detroit for a matchup against the hobbled Pistons Sunday evening (3 pm PT, KCAL).