Kobe Bryant busted out of a mini-slump in the last four minutes of Sunday's game, pushing the Lakers to a big win and busting out some playoff-caliber emotion in the process.
For the second time since the All-Star break, the Lakers and Blazers engaged in a tight, tense game. And for the second time, the Lakers came out ahead. Without the suspended Andrew Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers were off-kilter for much of the night, but still managed to rally late for a key win Sunday night at Staples.
Tonight's game again indicated why a potential first round series between Portland and the Lakers would be a lot of fun to watch, and could have Lakers fans biting their nails a little. Ironically, by beating the Blazers, L.A. made it more likely they'll actually see them when the postseason kicks off next month.
Here's how it broke down...
1. Defense. Take away the first half problems securing the glass, and the Lakers did a nice job against the Blazers. Portland was limited to 38.6 percent shooting on the night, in three of the four quarters failed to score more than 20 points, and only notched only 32 in the second half. Once Nicolas Batum, who went off for 19 points on eight-for-10 shooting in the first half, cooled off, Portland didn't have any viable options. LaMarcus Aldridge, playing as well as any big in the league over the last few months, had 18 points on 17 shots, as the Lakers limited him to only three trips to the line. Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez were a combined nine-for-36.
More importantly, the fourth quarter comeback, just as it was in their OT victory in Portland last month, was fueled on the defensive side of the ball- Kobe pokes the ball away from Miller with just over two minutes remaining, earning him a dunk at the other end, followed immediately by a steal from Derek Fisher, who finished with a layup (because most of the dunk footage with Fish is grainy at this point). Four points in a minute, helping raise a flagging offense.
Lamar Odom followed with a steal off Gerald Wallace, after Portland grabbed a rare second half ORB, helping eliminate a chance for the Blazers to score. Without Bynum out of the lineup, the Lakers stood up and delivered a strong game defensively.
2. Kobe Bryant (Last Five Minutes Version). Like most writers, in an effort to deliver analysis as fast as possible, I'll write during the game. For most of this one, Kobe's performance landed him square in the lower half of this postgame wrap. After hitting three of his first four shots, Bryant went cold, missing nine of his next 11.
It looked like the general inefficiency of their stars- Pau Gasol finished was only 6-of-15 from the floor- would be L.A.'s undoing Sunday night. But over the last 4:19, Bryant straight up exploded. It started with a nice drive-and-finish off the right wing, and went from there. On the next trip, he drew the double off the high screen, then rifled a great pass to Gasol on the block for a layup, followed by the aforementioned steal-to-dunk off Miller. He added two more buckets, including a tough baseline fadeaway over Roy with 32 seconds remaining, putting L.A. up by five.
Moreover, Bryant wore his emotions on his sleeve, screaming and punching the air with each successful play. (Including a couple moments the folks responsible for cutting together video replays may want to avoid... NSFW. I suspect he REALLY wanted to clinch the Pacific Division tonight.) The last few games haven't been overly kind to Bryant, who hadn't shot better than 38 percent in any of his previous four games. In four minutes Sunday, he seemed to exorcise a lot of demons.
3. Lamar Odom. When the rest of the team was flagging, L.O. kept the Lakers afloat. He moved well without the ball, cutting into the lane when he didn't have the rock, attacking off the dribble when he did. In the starting lineup replacing Bynum, Odom finished with 16 points on eight-of-11 shooting, plus 11 rebounds and a team-high six assists. Without Odom's strong play, Kobe doesn't have the opportunity to be the hero down the stretch.
4. Turnovers. Seven in the first half, only 11 overall. On the night, the Lakers only allowed eight points off giveaways. Considering how much trouble they had scoring through most of the game, had that number been elevated, the result almost surely would have been different.
1. Defensive Rebounding, First Half. Particularly with Bynum in street clothes, I noted in this afternoon's preview how important it would be for the Lakers to secure the defensive glass, given how effective Portland is in gathering misses (fifth best in the league by percentage). Periodically, the Lakers go out of their way to make me look smart. Portland shot under 45 percent over the opening 24 minutes, but earned themselves an extra 14 points on the strength of 10 offensive boards. Marcus Camby had three, not exactly surprising give his status as one of the best per minute rebounders in the league, but it's not like his skill in that area is a secret. Too often the Lakers simply failed to locate him as he dove from the high post after a rebound.
But whether it was Camby or any of the five other Blazers who snagged an offensive board, the Lakers didn't do a good enough job putting bodies on bodies. In the second half, L.A. tightened up the glass considerably, allowing only two ORB's in the third, and did a decent job for most of the fourth, but already did plenty of damage to that point.
2. Offense Against Portland's Zone. Unless you really like jump shots, that is. The Blazers get a lot of mileage out of their zone defense, and too often the Lakers made it too easy, launching perimeter shots reasonably early in the clock, even though the same shot would likely be available later in the possession. There were exceptions- Odom did a nice job working his way into the interior of the zone, with and without the ball. Matt Barnes, no surprise, also made some nice cuts. Kobe was very willing to attack off the dribble. When they did more than stand around, the results were generally better.
Overall, though, the Lakers didn't move the ball or themselves with authority, nor were they able to hit enough shots to loosen up the Blazers. Two-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first half, three-of-14 at the end of the third (the one make in that frame being a prayer at the buzzer from Matt Barnes), and three-of-17 by the end of the game. It helps explain how, after the end of a first quarter in which the jumpers were falling, the Lakers put up only 35 points in the second and third quarters, and a paltry 10 over the first eight minutes of the fourth.
3. Pau Gasol. It wasn't all bad- he was part of a defensive effort helping limit Portland's stars and ripped down nine first half rebounds (though only four more in the second half), but overall Sunday was a tough one for Gasol. Not for lack of effort, but he just seemed unable to find a rhythm, particularly on the offensive end. On a night where he had plenty of shots, Gasol was basically unable to hit anything that wasn't a layup or dunk. Six-for-15 from the floor, and only three trips to the line (as a team, the Lakers only shot 12 free throws). It should be noted, too, Gasol played almost 45 minutes, all at the five. That'll suck the wind out of most guys.
As is his custom, Gasol didn't stop playing, making himself available for Bryant's slick pass down the stretch and skying for a key rebound in front of Aldridge late in the game, but tonight's box won't be one he puts on the fridge door.
Much more to come...