For most of Friday's game against the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Lakers put the engine in cruise control. Not ideal, but understandable for a team facing a horrible road squad in a season where discretion is definitely the better part of valor. Unfortunately, in the fourth quarter the Lakers kept the cruise but lost control, turning what should have been a blowout into a far tighter game.
In the end, Kobe Bryant put down a few buckets late and the defense earned just enough stops to keep the Lakers on the positive side of the ledger. They win 115-107, avoiding an embarrassing misstep heading into Sunday's game against Miami.
Here are five takeaways:
1. The Lakers played the right offense to help their defense.
The Kings are horrible on their end of the floor, but nonetheless the Lakers should be credited with the way they executed offensively. With few exceptions, they pushed everything toward the rim. Bryant set up shop in the post early, making five shots in the first quarter from 10 feet and in. Later, he finished a couple plays off the dribble at the basket, both from the top of the key and the baseline. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were both effective in the paint, contributing a host of nifty finishes. In the third, Bynum executed one of the best post moves I've ever seen him make, with a massive step high off the block to change the position of Sacramento's double team, then spinning on his pivot foot back to the basket to score over Chuck Hayes.
A very nifty bit of footwork, for sure.
They did a great job as well using size to create easy baskets over the top, working hard inside to get a seal, then waiting for the lob. If anything, they were a little too lob happy. They didn't make a ton of mistakes, but a decent percentage of the miscues came on misguided lob attempts.
2. The Lakers were also very generous at all the wrong times.
Early on the Lakers were sloppy, fueling Sacramento's transition game (seven of their first 15 points came on the break). That wasn't great, but paled in comparison to how the Lakers started the fourth, turning the ball over six times in the first eight minutes. They didn't just open the door for Sacramento to get back into the game, but walked them through it tossing rose petals in their path, like those fetching valets did for Prince Akeem in "Coming to America."
Fortunately for Los Angeles, the Kings simply aren't good enough to take full advantage, allowing the Lakers to ultimately keep them at arms length. But I can't imagine they'll be happy letting a 20-point lead shrink to five in the fourth quarter. It had a feel all along of a game that the Lakers were content to match the Kings' scoring, knowing they could clamp down and put some space between themselves and the Kings later in the game (see the 27-16 third quarter). But it could have been a game the Lakers won going away, and earned their starters some rest.
3. The mask suits Kobe well.
Against the Timberwolves on Wednesday, Bryant flirted with a triple double. On Friday night, he wasn't quite as prolific statistically, but I don't think anyone will complain. Again he was efficient from the floor (13-of-24) en route to 38 points, and equally active on the boards. Most importantly, he attacked, whether aggressively fighting for position in the post or penetrating with the dribble. Everything was inside the arc. Kobe didn't take a 3-pointer until late in the fourth, when he canned a must-take, late-clock triple from the right corner putting the Lakers up by nine.
If this is how he plays with that thing on, he might want to consider keeping it even after the nose heals.
4. The bench: big early, non-existent late.
The first half saw the Lakers' bench chip in with 19 points, including nine from Andrew Goudelock (4-of-5) and seven from Matt Barnes. They finished with 22 points, as only Barnes managed to score in the final 24 minutes. A little more consistency would have helped, and better play at the top of the fourth quarter obviously would have changed the dynamic of the game substantially. Garbage time opportunities are hard to come by for this team. Particularly at home, the second unit needs to preserve leads when the Lakers can build them up.
5. When they weren't throwing the ball to Sacramento, the Lakers shared the rock.
The ball movement was outstanding through most of the game, occasionally to a fault (many of the miscues came from overpassing). Bynum did well delivering the ball out of double teams. Gasol was his usual unselfish self. Derek Fisher quietly piled up seven dimes. There were moments when the flow offensively was outstanding, in part because the Lakers were committed all night to putting the ball in multiple sets of hands on each trip. As a team, the Lakers posted 25 assists, a very solid number.