The most important thing was the W, not the ride to the destination. More often than not, it looked like a victory wasn't in the cards, despite Kevin Love sitting on the sidelines for Minnesota with back spasms. The Lakers turned up the intensity and focus as the game wore on, doing enough to prevent a bagel-ed roadie. Style points count for nothing ... and that's good, because the purple and gold earned few, if any.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
1) A first half filled with sloppy, lethargic play put the Lakers behind the early eight ball.
The following second-quarter sequence epitomized both issues: After Kobe Bryant misses a 5-footer between the circles against two defenders, the Wolves are off and running. In transition, Ricky Rubio infiltrates the lane with far too much ease, then hands off to Nikola Pekovic, who bobbles the exchange. But the big Minnesota center beats Andrew Bynum to the loose ball and puts up a bouncing layup that might or might not have dropped but gets scored as two points regardless, because Josh McRoberts is called for basket interference.
A deadly combination of incompetence and seeming indifference put the Lakers behind the eight ball, and forced them to fight from behind. Derek Fisher turned the ball over on the first possession, setting a butter-fingery tone maintained over the first 24 minutes. The Lakers turned the ball over five times by the 7:43 mark, and every starter had at least one gaffe before the first quarter ended. Some of the miscues were so bad, it wasn't even a matter of everyone not being on the same page, you wondered whether they were even reading the same book. Complete discombobulation, and the Wolves did a nice job making lemonade out of the Lakers' lemons.
In the meantime, the hustle needed to overcome these mistakes was rarely displayed. Loose balls and rebounds were continually grabbed by the Wolves, despite Love's absence. Rubio and Michael Beasley made their way toward the basket with far too little resistence. Closeouts were late. Pick-and-rolls left the Lakers spinning. And as someone watching the action from my Los Angeles living room, I can't say with certainty Pau Gasol was distracted by the latest twirl of the rumor mill. I just know he was getting beaten badly on the defensive end and brought little to the table with the ball in his hands. In the meantime, Derrick Williams (22 points, 10 rebounds) proved a more than worthy replacement for Love. These developments are hardly unrelated.
However, credit the Lakers for cranking up the energy in the second half and showing some fight in the Twin Cities. It was refreshing to see the comeback initially fueled with Kobe on the bench, who overcame a very difficult three quarters to make some big shots late. Bynum in particular was a second-half monster, continuously fed and eating like he had a tapeworm. And the defense, while still guilty of breakdowns, came through often enough to make a difference.
A few breaks also went the Lakers' way down the stretch (in particular, a blatant goal-tend by Williams on a layup attempt by Bynum), happily accepted by the veteran team. Like I said, this wasn't a time capsule victory, and I doubt too many Lakers fans feel entirely reassured by it. But at the very least, pride was displayed, even if it took some time.
2) The small forwards brought steady energy.
The consistently lone exceptions to the team-wide second-gear mode were Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes, who played in fifth from start to finish. MWP didn't shoot the ball particularly well, but he managed nine points through trips to the line, largely secured by his relentless pursuit of offensive rebounds. Defensively, his hands were active and disruptive, inflicting far more damage than the one steal in the box score would indicate. For his part, Barnes channeled the Tasmanian Devil from the moment he checked into the game, a whirling dervish of nonstop activity. As is typically the case when Barnes is at his best, opportunities were created by off-ball movement. On the other side of the ball, the reserve forced Beasley and Martell Webster into travels, and had a killer weakside block against Beasley.
It's worth noting that most of the supporting players found ways to contribute. Fisher drilled a trio of second-half triples. McRoberts, newly reinserted into the rotation, scored five points, grabbed seven rebounds, and set up a cutting Barnes with a sweet pass over the top. Steve Blake drilled a critical fourth-quarter trey and worked a nice chemistry feeding Bynum. But I thought MWP and Barnes set the initial tone for the role players eventually chipping in.
3) Jason Kapono is now in the rotation, apparently.
Look, Mike Brown. I'm really working hard not to harp on you for tinkering with the rotation, especially with the options admittedly less than inviting. And yes, you had stuck with your guns for a while. I can even get reinserting McRoberts, considering the lack of energy permeating throughout your team and the upgrade in defensive mobility over Troy Murphy. But you're really benching the second unit's best scorer, the only reserve capable of creating his own shot, for a 30.8 percent 3-point shooter often reluctant to let fly and, on his best day, a wash as a defensive liability? In 10 minutes, Kapono missed all three of his attempts and committed a really stupid holding foul before an inbound pass, sending Webster to the line for an automatic pair of freebies.
I feel like Michael Corleone in "Godfather III." Every time I think I'm out of criticisms along these lines, you pull me back in, Coach!
Bold play of the game: After Anthony Tolliver missed a 3, Kobe took the ball past half court, accepted a mother of a screen from McRoberts, switched the ball to his left hand, and then, on the run, blew straight to the rack for an emphatic, springy left-handed dunk.