First things first: The Lakers are not "better" without Kobe Bryant. Go ahead and push that thought from your noggin', and please stop sending emails claiming otherwise.
Still, following Friday's 103-97 win over a solid Denver squad at Staples, L.A.'s third win in four tries with Bryant in monumentally well-tailored street clothes, they've shown a great deal of strength and are piling up the sort of positive results likely serving them well once the postseason rolls around. Guys like Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes were massive. Steve Blake's recent recovery continued, as well. This while L.A.'s bigs, put in positions of leadership, made plays.
Here are three takeaways...
1. Andrew Bynum was a force inside.
George Karl's strategy was clear from the outset: When Bynum touches the ball, send as much powder blue in his direction as possible. It's been the m.o. for opposing coaches in the other three games Kobe missed and in those was effective, as Bynum was held well below 50 percent from the field overall. Friday, Bynum broke through and to his credit did so without getting frustrated by all the extra attention. He patiently tried to work the ball, feeding out of the post when possible, whether to Troy Murphy for a corner jumper or the aforementioned 3-pointer. He finished with three assists, and a few missteps aside did decent work out of the double.
When keeping the ball, Bynum was aggressive, working his full arsenal of drop steps and solid footwork to split through doubles, and other times simply muscling his way through them. The interior strength helped explain 11 trips to the line. Overall, he finished with 30 points on 11-of-19 from the field, his best night offensively since Kobe went out with the shin injury.
Defensively, Bynum showed the same sort of commitment to controlling the paint as he did Wednesday in the win over San Antonio. The results weren't as uniformly spectacular, but that's neither his fault nor the point. He's the guy who can make the Lakers into an elite level defensive squad on a night in, night out basis. His activity inside makes it easier for Pau Gasol (or anyone else, really) to hedge hard on the perimeter in pick and roll coverage, and also tends to be contagious. Bynum's activity adds continuity and confidence to the group, and Friday the Lakers worked hard to close out on shooters and fight over screens.
This when not putting themselves in bad situations in transition. (Speaking of which...)
2. Turnovers were a major problem.
Everyone makes mistakes now and again, but after establishing a very strong offensive rhythm early, the Lakers began turning it over and paid a price. Between the 7:42 and 2:06 marks of the second quarter, the Lakers were credited with four turnovers. In related news, over that stretch Denver ate nine points off L.A.'s lead. 11, really, if you want to include two points the Lakers didn't get because of a basket interference call on Barnes. Coming out of the locker room, the Lakers weren't much better, coughing up the rock four times in the first four minutes of play. That's a lot of lost scoring opportunities, teamed with opportunities for Denver to get out on the run.
Not a good formula.
On the night, the Lakers were credited with a whopping 23 turnovers, accounting for 23 Nuggets points, and they were lucky it wasn't a lot worse. Gasol, who otherwise did some very nice things, was a big culprit, accounting for six on his own.
As a team, many of the turnovers came on errant entry passes. Early, the Lakers moved the ball well side to side and cut effectively, creating good lanes for post passes. As things went on, the willingness to make the extra pass wasn't as strong. They telegraphed their deliveries, often tossed from poor angles. When the Lakers kept mistakes to a minimum, forcing the Nuggets into half-court sets, generally speaking they were effective defensively. Denver's rallies tended to be more about a lack of offensive execution and poor shot selection than bad defense.
3. Big small forwards.
It wasn't simply the 14 points World Peace contributed. MWP was a full on stat stuffer. Eight rebounds, three assists, and some serious thievery, with five steals including a slick jab of the rock ruining a Denver break early in the fourth. Then there were the plays to fire up the faithful. Picking the pocket of Danilo Gallinari in the first half, then beating him down the floor for a thunderous right-handed dunk. In the third, MWP grabbed a loose ball, and like a bison running downhill motored to the other end, picking up his dribble at the free throw line, drawing contact, and somehow finishing with what can only be described as a six foot, lefty finger roll. From there, he got town on one knee in front of the photogs and blew a kiss to the crowd.
Fair to say Metta is feeling it these days.
In a normal night, Metta's performance likely would have paced the team's contingent of small forwards. Not Friday. Behind him, Barnes was a bigger hero, and his contributions went well beyond his normal upper level energy. In the first quarter, he had a great finish, driving the left baseline and working through contact, and contributing to the team's effective ball movement as well, teaming with Bynum on a great post-kick-post-kick sequence ultimately earning him a 3. At the end of the half, Barnes grabbed an offensive rebound (off a ball kept alive by Gasol) and beat the buzzer with a rainbow jumper. Nobody would have blamed Barnes for calling it a night, but down the stretch he was even more impressive, accounting for five massive points and a lob to Bynum in the final minutes, helping seal the win. He paced the bench with 24 points on an uber-efficient 9-of-11 from the floor (including a perfect 4-for-4 from downtown) and grabbed 10 rebounds, including four on the offensive end.
Bold Play of the Game:
I'll call it a tie. First, a huge triple from Barnes off a nice feed from Gasol at the 2:42 mark, short-circuiting a Denver rally and giving the Lakers a four point lead. Thirty seconds later, Andre Miller, who with 20/6/6 was a major thorn in L.A.'s side, drove left through the lane on Gasol, who stuffed him hard on the shot. It was Pau's third block of the night, and easily the biggest.