Rapid Reaction: Lakers 92, Nuggets 89
December, 31, 2011
By Brian Kamenetzky
The Lakers traditionally haven't played all that well in afternoon games, but for one day at least, old patterns didn't bleed into the new season. There were plenty of physical miscues, evidenced by 20 turnovers, but the Lakers displayed some serious grit and intensity, working hard for their third straight win.
Here are five takeaways...
1. Andrew Bynum makes a very, very big difference.
In his first game of the season, it didn't take long for Bynum to make an impression. On Denver's opening possession, Bynum altered Arron Afflalo's layup attempt at the bucket, cleaning up for Kobe Bryant on the perimeter, then went down and drew a shooting foul on Timofey Mozgov. He'd score L.A.'s first six points, and finish the opening quarter with 10 points on 4-of-5 from the floor, plus three rebounds. There were a few hiccups (five turnovers), but generally speaking Bynum showed good footwork and activity throughout despite the rust, working hard to establish position deep in the post and crashing the glass. He even played facilitator late in the third, spinning his way out of a double at the left elbow, putting the ball on the floor, and kicking to Steve Blake for a jumper.
And of course, there was the killer sequence late in the fourth where Bynum blocked Nene on one end, then ran the floor and scored on the other, putting the Lakers up by two.
Bynum played nearly 32 minutes in total -- not bad for a guy who said Friday he thought his minutes might be limited -- and posted a robust line of 29 points, 13 boards, and two blocks. Welcome back.
2. The looks for everyone were generally cleaner with Bynum around.
Bynum and Pau Gasol have always had moments where they struggle working together on the block, and given the relative lack of familiarity with Mike Brown's system, that there were moments Saturday where it seemed like the two of them couldn't quite work out spacing is no surprise. But between the high number of putbacks and deep post opportunities for Bynum, all high percentage, and an almost endless stream of open mid-range jumpers for Gasol (few are as automatic with those), the Lakers were treated to a lot of good opportunities for their bigs.
Having Bynum and Gasol both available on the pick and roll posed serious problems for the Nuggets, as well. In the first half, Kobe came over a Bynum screen, and as the defense collapsed on him and watched Drew roll to the bucket, Pau snuck out to the elbow for a jumper. In the fourth, Kobe used Gasol in the P'n'R, then found Bynum coming off the weakside block for a lob.
There was a great sequence early, too, where Gasol received the ball on the right block, drew the double, and kicked back to Kobe before leaving the post. As his defender went with him, Bynum filled the void, got the repost from Kobe, and scored.
Bottom line, while it's not always smooth, the Lakers are a very tough team to cover with both elite bigs available. It explains why they were a solid 37-of-62 from inside the arc, and still managed to shoot over 45 percent as a team.
3. Meanwhile, they had another awful shooting day from 3-point range.
They entered the game shooting only 31.3 percent from downtown, and most of that came in Thursday's win over New York. Today, the Lakers managed only 2-of-24, likely most of the sold out crowd might have done given the same number of chances. In some ways, I think the Lakers might be doing the opposite of last season, where they started out red hot from the arc and then cooled off as the season progressed.
They still should turn out to be a much improved group of shooters, but we're not seeing evidence of it yet. That they were able to pull this game out despite so many empty trips and relatively little success getting to the stripe (15 free throws) shows how well the Lakers played in other facets.
4. Defensive consistency is becoming the new normal.
In the early going, the Nuggets have been the NBA's highest scoring team. Yet despite missing a ton of shots from deep, normally jet fuel for a group like Denver, the Lakers held Denver to 42.5 percent shooting from the floor, a number that went down as the game went along. Coaches love that sort of thing. Down the stretch, there were some huge plays all over the floor: The aforementioned Bynum block, another swat from Gasol near the bucket, and a great diving play in the frontcourt from Derek Fisher to preserve a possession while likely preventing a run out the other way.
In the fourth quarter, Denver hit only seven shots, on 21 tries. That'll get it done.
5. The crowd was into it.
Frankly, that's not the norm at Staples, particularly early in the season and during afternoon games. They were quiet early, even through a great stretch of three straight jumpers (along with a nifty setup of Josh McRoberts) from Kobe. That normally livens up the joint. But by the second half, as Bynum continued performing well and the team showed the sort of effort on both ends fans appreciate, the building came alive.
I've questioned how much the city will embrace this team, given how dark the mood has been in the early going, and the threat of boring basketball. If today's work on the floor and in the stands is an indication, I could be wrong.