1. Lakers Majoring In Drama For This Playoff Push
PORTLAND, Ore. -- If a season is 82 opportunities for a team to cement an identity, the Los Angeles Lakers have submitted nearly all their evidence. And needing a win to stay in control of their playoff destiny against a Portland Trail Blazers team that started as many rookies as Los Angeles has future Hall of Famers, the Lakers continued polishing the image they've forged: just enough, at the last possible moment, against challenges that never should have been this difficult.
Just a night after needing a 23-point fourth quarter from Kobe Bryant to dispatch the Hornets, the Lakers were nearly bested by a Blazers squad that seemed more like blowout material than a potential playoff spoiler. The Blazers scored 69 points in the first half Wednesday night, led by an incandescent Damian Lillard. The presumptive rookie of the year poured in 38 points, nine assists and three steals as Portland took Los Angeles to the breaking point at a time when the Lakers could least afford it. And yet: just enough.
The Lakers made a concerted effort to get the ball out of Lillard's hands in the second half, and eventually the Blazers' weaknesses did them in. Los Angeles pulverized Meyers Leonard with targeted post-ups from Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, whose chemistry seemed as sharp as it has all season. Kobe gunned his way to 47 points, the big men each posted a double-double -- if you squint, this is how it was always supposed to be.
If you listen to the Lakers, they'll try to convince you the way their machine is running is worthy of the components. One reason they can do it with a straight face is that Gasol, whose relegation to the bench this season seemed like a point of no return, has put together two of his best efforts this season. After posting 22 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday night, Gasol nearly racked up a triple-double Wednesday night with 23 points on 11-for-15 shooting, seven rebounds and nine assists.
"Since January, he's played well," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think earlier he was just hurt. The system was screwed up, we're trying to figure things out, and I'm trying to figure things out and how to play him. ... I have a lot more confidence in him now, and he's playing great."
And yet, the identity fractures that have plagued the Lakers aren't quite healed. Asked about Bryant's offensive performance, Gasol returned to a years-old theme: "I think it's spectacular and very impressive. ... On the other hand, I'm a player that -- I like to see a little more ball movement and better balance. That's just how I perceive this game." This is not a new point, and anybody familiar with the Lakers knows well the push and pull between Pau and Kobe. Still, as much as the Lakers faithful hope Gasol's resurgence rekindles hopes of contention, the message is clear: The Lakers are getting away with bandages where there ought to be strong stitching.
As for Gasol's compatriot in the post, familiar, too, is Howard's insistence on an offense dominated by post-ups. "We've got [to] really play inside-out," Howard said. "Teams are so worried about making sure we don't score in the post, we can kick it out to guys cutting, making 3s. ... I think that's the best way to play." When asked about Steve Blake's crucial offensive rebounds on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, Howard said, "I think those guys were so concerned with keeping me off the glass that they forgot about him."
And so the Lakers' rising playoff chances might be new, but the tensions are not. Kobe and Pau, the stalwarts of the past half-decade, persist in their uneasy embrace while Howard's titanic and occasionally justified ego strains against the context of the team. As ever, Bryant's scoring maintains the delicate balance. Without 70 points in the past 60 minutes from the man who has always been this team's foundation and its ceiling, the Lakers most likely fumble away their playoff seed to a pair of lottery teams.
But they didn't, because this is what they do. They wait as long as possible to respond as much as they have to and hope we see what we've always wanted to: a balanced team of complementary superstars, rounding into form at just the right time.
Danny Nowell's work appears regularly on Portland Roundball Society.
Around the Association
MVP: Kobe Bryant had 47 points to lead the Lakers. Sometimes, it seems, clichés fit: Bryant played Wednesday night like he simply couldn't lose.
X factor: The Blazers started four rookies in a game that was tighter than it had any right to be. It helped that one of those rookies was Damian Lillard, who finished with 38 points.
That was ... just enough. For the second night in a row, the Lakers got by with the bare minimum against a team that ought to have been way overmatched. Their playoff hopes survive, again, by a thread.
MVP: Wilson Chandler. Scoring a team-high 29 points, Chandler was the one consistent offensive force for Denver for the entire game. He continues to fill in admirably in the absence of Danilo Gallinari, adding eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
X factor: Andre Iguodala. Whatever Denver needed, Iguodala gave. Hitting shots, locking down an opposing player, running the offense, he did it all. His triple-double (12 points, 10 assists, 13 rebounds) only scratched the surface of his contributions to Denver's impressive win.
That was ... a tale of two halves. The first half featured minimal scoring and near-maximum sloppiness, with neither team shooting better than 37 percent. In the second, however, the action picked up, especially for Denver, as it ended up scoring 21 fast-break points.
MVP: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (tie). Both controlling the tempo, boards and flow of the game, Paul and Griffin put up nearly identical numbers in three quarters of play. That's a 6-foot point guard and 6-10 power forward both with near triple-doubles. Symmetry.
Defining moment: The Clippers went on a binge in the final three minutes of the second and third quarters, going on 13-4 and 12-2 runs, respectively. Minnesota just couldn't stay with the Clippers' firepower.
That was ... expected: Ravaged by injury, the Timberwolves haven't been very good this season. The Clippers took care of business like a team with aspirations beyond just taking things one game at a time. And all five Los Angeles starters scored in double figures to show just how well-balanced that focus was.
MVP: Deron Williams used a lethal mix of bullet passes and sweeping crossovers to rack up 27 points and 12 assists. He befuddled any Celtic who dared to defend him.
LVP: Avery Bradley. The Celtics defensive ace was completely handcuffed by foul trouble (five). So much so that he managed to stay on the court for only 12 minutes.
That was ... illuminating: The Nets made the necessary in-game adjustments to win convincingly. It's evident one team is ready to take the postseason head on and the other is still trying to figure itself out.
MVP: Ray Allen played the role of creator with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh out. In 33 minutes off the bench, Allen scored 23 points but went only 1-for-7 from deep. His teammates picked up the slack by going a combined 16-for-34 from long distance.
X factor: Washington attempted to counter a Joel Anthony-Shane Battier-Rashard Lewis front line with Nene and Emeka Okafor at the 4/5 and Martell Webster at the 3. Didn't work out. Undesired switching often resulted in Miami shooters getting all the space they wanted. Battier drained five 3-pointers, and Lewis knocked down three.
That game was ... barely watchable: Front-running Heat fans in D.C. were certainly disappointed with no Big Three but still left somewhat satisfied. Wizards fans, in a lost season, simply wanted to see their team win 10 straight at home. The loser? Basketball fans. The two teams combined for 41 turnovers, Miami with a season-high 25.
MVP: Goran Dragic posted his second straight double-double with 21 points (7-for-14 FG) and 13 assists. Goran got to the bucket at will all night as he helped the Suns break their 10-game losing streak.
LVP: O.J. Mayo. In a game the Mavericks desperately needed to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, Mayo hit only two of his 10 shots and turned the ball over four times in 38 minutes.
X factor: A night after goaltending the winning bucket in Houston, Jermaine O'Neal blocked seven shots and pulled down six boards in 24 minutes of play. He anchored the Suns defensively as they ended their long losing skid.
MVP: Josh Smith was effective inside and outside the paint, shooting 11-of-18 from the field and tallying 28 points. When he's making his jump shots (or not taking them), the do-it-all forward looks like an All-Star.
That was ... fitting: Thaddeus Young's incredible putback dunk in the third quarter was wiped away after officials called him for offensive goaltending. His 28 points -- and the slam -- were wasted in the blowout loss.
X factor: John Jenkins is on fire. The rookie followed up a career-high 23-point performance against San Antonio by scoring 21 points Wednesday night, hitting jump shot after jump shot and carrying the Hawks' bench. He is shooting 15-of-22 combined over the past two games.
MVP: Nikola Vucevic played like a Monstar, finishing with a career-high 30 points to go along with 20 rebounds. It was his fourth 20-20 game of the season. Honorable mention goes to Tobias Harris for having an equally monstrous game (30 points and 19 rebounds).
X factor: Filling in for Larry Sanders, who sat out the second half with a sore lower back, John Henson had a career night. He flirted with a triple-double (17 points, 25 rebounds, 7 blocks) and was the best player on the floor for Milwaukee.
LVP: Two players come away with this dubious award. Beno Udrih (6-for-22) and Monta Ellis (7-for-27) chucked up a storm offensively and got minimal returns. The only silver lining is that each racked up 11 assists and helped his respective team somewhat on offense.
3. Wednesday's Best
Kobe Bryant, Lakers:
He just became the first player in NBA history with at least 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals in an NBA game, according to Elias Sports Bureau. (Blocks and steals became official in 1973-74.)
4. Wednesday's Worst
Avery Bradley, Celtics: Maybe the Rajon-Rondo-is-expendable crowd can slow down now. Instead of giving Deron Williams a hard time, it was Bradley who got in foul trouble and finished with two points. Meanwhile, D-Will was running amok, putting up 29 points and 12 dimes.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote of the Night
"We've got no breathing room at all. I'm still on edge. We've got to win three more games and we're in."
-- Kobe Bryant, after his team beat the Blazers to stay in the No. 8 spot in West.
8. Not Smashed By Pek
9. Stat Check
The Lakers' victory over the Trail Blazers coupled with the Mavericks' loss to the Suns eliminated Dallas from the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. The Mavericks had made the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, which was the second-longest current streak of its kind in the NBA, behind the Spurs, who now have qualified for the postseason in 16 consecutive seasons.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around the Association
MVP: Something about the Hornets brings out the best in John Salmons. On Wednesday night, the veteran swingman scored 12 of his 22 points in the third quarter. In the Kings' last meeting versus the Hornets, Salmons went a near-perfect 6-of-7 from 3-point distance.
LVP: Tonight was not the homecoming Ryan Anderson was hoping for. The Sacramento-area native scored just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting from the field. Anderson's performance was a far cry from the 22 points he averaged in the Hornets' previous two games against the Kings this season.
X factor: The Kings were in a sharing mood tonight. Sacramento had 20 assists by the third quarter and finished with 27 on the evening. The last time the Kings recorded 25 or more assists? Three weeks ago in a win at home over the Los Angeles Clippers.
MVP: Andre Drummond's 29 points are a whit inflated because the Cavs enacted an off-the-ball fouling strategy that put him on the line for 17 attempts, but Drummond was dominant in open play, going 10-for-11 from the field and grabbing 11 rebounds.
LVP: Dion Waiters, coming off a knee injury that had kept him out for three weeks, managed to miss seven shots in only 15 minutes. He often killed the Cavs' offense early in the shot clock with misguided jumpers.
That was ... excruciating: The Cavs' aforementioned Hack-a-Dre tactic turned this one into a free throw shooting contest with four minutes to play. A game between two of the league's worst teams positively dragged to its conclusion.