LOS ANGELES -- No more wondering and doubting. No more pointing to the soft early-season schedule. No more poking holes and poking fun.
Lakers looking tough enough
You can write it down: The Lakers can play. The Lakers are good.
And more than that, the Lakers are tough.
You heard right. Not slick, not pretty. Tough.
No less a stalwart than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said so after his boys, who don't ever get pushed around, were manhandled in a 106-99 Los Angeles win Sunday night. "Their pressure really got us on our heels," he said. "We absolutely folded under their pressure."
Down 48-46 at halftime, the Lakers might have been the ones who folded, might have been the ones who figured they couldn't hang with a San Antonio team that seems capable, night in and night out, of doing anything and everything it takes to win. But instead, Los Angeles dialed it up, on both ends of the floor.
The third-quarter offensive numbers were impressive: 37 points, nine assists, three 3s and 62.5 percent field-goal shooting. But it was the Lakers' defense, scrapping, slapping and fighting, that made those numbers possible. They contested even the most perfunctory entry passes and gimme shots.
Smush Parker grabbed a Tony Parker lob almost before it left his hand and before you know it the ball is headed the other way for a Luke Walton 3-point play. Walton stripped Bruce Bowen in the lane and Lamar Odom picked up the loose ball and fired ahead to Kobe Bryant for a right-handed jam. Bryant stole a back-cut pass intended for Beno Udrih and ran down the floor and flicked it to Parker in the corner, who found Odom at the top of the key for an easy-as-you-please 3-pointer.
And so it went, stop after stop, transition bucket after transition bucket, and gut check after gut check; a 22-3 smackdown to go up 83-70 (a lead they would never relinquish) by the end of the third quarter.
"To beat a team like San Antonio it has to come from the defense for us," Walton said afterward. "We have guys who want to win and guys who want to play defense to make it happen."
Notice he said "guys," plural.
Kobe was his superstar self, coming up 34-point big (on a bum ankle and 13-for-25 shooting, including 4-for-5 from beyond the arc), and the crowd loved him for it, chanting "MVP! MVP!" as the game clock wound down in the fourth. But the Staples Center faithful reached a fever pitch in the third, loving every rough-hewn minute of the Lakers' defensive clinic, feeding off the collective intensity the players brought to each possession. The fans sensed they were seeing something, some kind of promise they can count on down the road, some new thing that doesn't just begin and end with No. 24.
All five Lakers starters were in double figures. Odom pulled down 11 boards. Kwame Brown blocked two, grabbed five and dished out three. Walton was 7-for-15 and was aggressive going for loose balls and open looks alike. Everybody got some. Everybody sold out. Everybody pushed.
"Everyone had each other's backs tonight," Walton said, still grinning from the feeling of it. "I knew it was in this team." In this team to be a team. In this team to D up. In this team to band together and put a very good team down. Decisively.
"This did a lot for our confidence," Brown said, moments after a crowd of reporters left his locker Sunday night. "We're taking pride as a team and in playing as a team. We know this is Kobe's team, but guys like me and Luke, we have to step up and take pressure off of him if we're going to go far."
It's too early to say how far they'll go, but it's not too early to say they look right now like a legitimate playoff club, with a capital T in Team. Last year they were Bryant and a bunch of backup singers, but this year's show is something else again, something more complete and something tougher to beat.
"They are much improved over last year on a variety of levels and they are just going to keep getting better," Popovich said.
There will be nights when Kobe carries this team by himself. There will be nights Lamar presses instead of letting the offense come to him as he did Sunday (he finished just one assist shy of a triple-double). There will be nights Andrew Bynum (3-for-4 from the field and one big tone-setting block of Tim Duncan) plays more timidly than he did against the Spurs. And there will be nights the reserves (who Phil Jackson called "inspirational" in his postgame press conference) struggle to make a difference.
But this defense, this growing possibility that it will define them (Staples was rocking with the call of "Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" throughout much of the second half Sunday), will, if they stay tough and true to it, carry them a long way, farther than we guessed at the beginning of the season.
It carries them now to Texas, to games with Houston and Dallas.
Talk about tough.
"We're going to see what we're made of," Brown said with a little smile Sunday, like they were eager for the chance to man-up.
• Talk back to The Daily Dime gang
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Amare Stoudemire (22 points, 12 rebounds) shows flashes of his old self with a jam over Emeka Okafor. The Suns beat the Bobcats, 114-84, and go for their 11th straight win Monday at Orlando.
Kings Ron Artest and Allen Iverson? The Maloof Brothers, as they're fond of telling us, are gamblers. Artest and Mike Bibby don't look like the happiest couple, so why not swap Bibby (and any other required salaries) for The Answer?
I can think of a zillion reasons not to, actually, but gambles don't get bigger than letting Ron-Ron and AI wrestle for control of the team. With the Maloofs riding their instincts more than ever, instead of simply deferring to Geoff Petrie, I've been advised to take this one seriously.
Andrea Bargnani and LaMarcus Aldridge, the top two picks in the 2006 NBA draft, met for the first time Sunday, with Aldridge's Blazers defeating Bargnani's Raptors. Bargnani "won" the individual battle, outscoring Aldridge 8-3. The 11 total points for the top two picks seem low but isn't out of the ordinary for this decade.
Since 2000, the most combined points scored in the first meeting of the top two picks in 19, all by Kenyon Martin in his first game against Stromile Swift in 2000. This is a marked difference from the previous decade, in which the first meeting of the top two picks always resulted in at least 16 points, and three times resulted in totals in the 40s.
-- ESPN Research
Lakers take down Spurs, lead Pacific
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant emerged from L.A. traffic with a 106-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers have played the most home games (15), won the most home games (12) and played the fewest road games (five).
Quotes of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
It appears the 76ers will be looking for a new "Answer" to their team's problems. After 11 seasons with Philly, Allen Iverson requested a trade. Iverson would be the first Philly franchise player shipped out of town since the Sixers traded Charles Barkley to the Suns after the 1991-92 season.
Second on the 76ers all-time scoring list behind Hal Greer, Iverson is just 417 points shy of the 20,000-point plateau. If traded, AI will have the seventh-most points scored in NBA history before playing for a second franchise.
-- ESPN Research
• Jarrett Jack is starting to look like the next guy we'll be talking about when discussing the Most Improved Player award. He's not there yet, but a 30-point game and a near triple-double in a three-game span will really enhance a player's confidence.
• One reason Bruce Bowen has earned the reputation as an excellent defender is that he is probably the best "chaser" in basketball. No matter how many screens you run through, he will be right behind you -- and on the catch he will be in your face.
• Anyone who saw Amare's dunk over Emeka Okafor in the first quarter would no longer question his athletic ability. There are not four guys on the planet who could have flushed that the way "Stat" did. His overall conditioning is still developing, but his quickness and leaping appear to be within 5 percent of his previous best.
• Do you know how most NBA teams employ enough scorers so that if their top scorer misses an occasional game, his teammates can pick up the slack? Well, Atlanta is not one of those teams. Without Joe Johnson, they are lost. And I know they hope Marvin Williams develops into another scorer, but right now he is just an immature kid in search of a game. Getting ejected disputing a non-call on his shot, down 30 in the fourth quarter, is not something to give Hawks fans hope.
• I'm impressed at how often I see the Lakers hustle and do the little things to help them get W's. It's not just about style. I'm even more impressed that it is often Lamar Odom leading the way in those categories.
-- David Thorpe
Paul Millsap, Jazz: Who knows if he'll eventually win the trophy? A lot of guys are getting more minutes and will exceed him hypewise, while Utah's deep frontcourt is going to limit him to 20 minutes a game or so. But to date Millsap has been the best rookie, hands down.
He's managed to earn steady playing time even though the Jazz didn't have a rotation spot for him when the year opened ... He's shooting 58 percent and has one of the highest rebound rates at his position, and despite a short, wide build he's a good shot-blocker. Overall, he's leading all rookies in PER, and he's done it for a team that sports the league's best record.
Speaking of which, perhaps it's time for the league's scouts to re-evaluate their position on short power forwards. The two best rookies so far were second-rounders who lasted that long based largely on their stature -- even though both racked up huge numbers in college.
There's a historical basis in this, as 6-7 and 6-8 power forwards don't have a great track record of success. But one has to wonder whether the shift to smaller lineups in recent seasons has made it possible for these guys to thrive again, and whether scouting has to adjust to the NBA's new realities. Just food for thought as we close out the rookie report.