It wasn't pretty, but for a while it looked like it would be a lot uglier. Playing their second straight game with Kobe Bryant in street clothes, the Lakers managed a come-from-behind win over the Hornets in New Orleans.
In the standings, it counts the same as a 25-point blowout, right?
Here are three takeaways ...
1. Without Bryant available, the Lakers struggled to generate shots.
Defensively, New Orleans had a simple strategy. When the ball goes to the post, double. If it goes to Andrew Bynum in the post, double, maybe triple. For much of the night, Drew did a pretty good job trying to pass out of traffic. There were moments where he read the play wrong and spun himself into traffic, contributing factors to three turnovers and another inefficient night from the floor (7-of-17). Overall, though, he moved the ball. Pau Gasol did his usual work as a facilitator. Still, without Bryant available, they had no shot creation on the wings. Ramon Sessions did some work coming off high screens, but in terms of putting the ball on the floor and creating on his own, didn't offer a ton.
Without much coming from the perimeter (save Gasol hitting jumpers in the first half), the Hornets had absolutely no incentive to lighten the pressure inside. Periodically, the Lakers successfully managed to earn decent looks with a post/repost, but it didn't happen often enough. Fortunately, the Lakers managed to get a little timely outside shooting down the stretch, with clutch triples from Metta World Peace and Sessions (his coming on the same short-clock play the Lakers used with Kobe to beat New Jersey last week), but it's fair to say for much of the game points were hard to come by.
The tempo was definitely better, helping hold down New Orleans on the break, but I'm not sure if it was on purpose. Hopefully it was.
2. Down the stretch, the Lakers got stops.
New Orleans is a bad offensive team, missing its most explosive players. That the Lakers held them under 100 points is only an accomplishment when stacked up more recent defensive efforts. Against the pick and roll, there were too many breakdowns, too many open shots on the perimeter, and too often Bynum left a teammate out to dry by not aggressively challenging the ball handler. Gasol couldn't contain noted murderer of purple and gold Carl Landry. After a strong opening quarter (19 points allowed) and a decent enough second (23), the Lakers allowed 29 in the third. The opening minutes of the fourth looked like more of the same, but when push came to shove and it actually looked like the game would get away, L.A. dug in.
A 3-pointer from Marco Belinelli at the 5:20 mark gave the Hornets 84 points. They only scored seven the rest of the way, and only two between the Belinelli triple and another 3 from Greivis Vasquez with 20 seconds to play. Gasol and Bynum were big inside, and the rotations around the permeter grew far more precise. There are reasons to hold off on the cartwheels, given the opponent, but these days beggars simply can't be choosers when it comes to good defense.
3. This was as good as Steve Blake has looked in a while.
The box score numbers are relatively modest: Eight points, four assists, two rebounds in 30 minutes of burn. His real impact, though, came in the stuff that doesn't show up in the stat sheet. The most notable came in the third, when Blake rescued what would have been a sure backcourt violation, out-hustling the Hornets and making a great jump pass to Sessions maybe 35 feet away. Sessions dished to Matt Barnes, who drove and finished at the rack. In the fourth, he won a couple 50/50 balls, and drew an offensive foul. Importantly, Blake didn't turn the ball over, and even converted a rare attempt at the rim.
It won't (and shouldn't) be enough to silence his critics, but any positive signs from Blake are welcome. He's the horse L.A. will ride at that position down the stretch and into the playoffs, and he needs to to be better.