To quote John "Hannibal" Smith, "I love it when a plan comes together."
Before tonight's 131-96 shellacking of the Dallas Mavericks, I offered a list of elements capable of shifting victory one direction or the other. Almost to a tee, what I touched upon played a role in the Laker win...
-Between the Lakers' shorthanded state (even more of skeleton crew-ed when Pau Gasol couldn't return from a first quarter left hamstring strain) and Lamar Odom's history of outplaying Shawn Marion, I felt it'd be huge if LO was involved early and often. The first quarter ended with Odom racking four points, six rebounds and an assist against Marion's 1/3/1 line. That discrepancy never evened out, as The Matrix was a complete non-factor and LO finished the night with 15 points, 15 rebounds and a sextet of dimes.
-Jason Terry, Josh Howard and Drew Gooden make the Mavs bench as potentially explosive as a David Hasselhoff at an open bar, breathing on a lit match. In the meantime, the Lakers' bench has been largely unreliable. But, as the saying goes, that's why games aren't conducted on paper. Terry scored just 10 points and turned the ball over twice. Howard fared worse, his 2-11 effort cultivating just seven points. As I noted, he's struggled on back-to-backs during this injury-plagued season, but some credit has to go the Laker D (outstanding all night). Whether by Andrew Bynum at the rim or Sasha Vujacic in space, Howard was harassed into misery. For his part, Gooden started in place of an inactive Erick Dampier, but judging by the abuse endured from Bynum on both sides of the ball, I don't think it would have mattered when he checked in.
-On the flip side, the purple and gold second unit went goony bird. Sasha Vujacic drilled his first attempt, an omen for what lay ahead (11 points on 4-8 shooting, five rebounds, two steals and some effective D). Shannon Brown (11 points on 5-7 shooting) provided his usual crowd pleasing dunk, but his evening's true highlight was actually either a leaning right-handed layup off a beautiful give and go with Odom or the five assists he doled out. DJ Mbenga had three blocks --including a beauty on Dirk Nowitzki from behind in the first quarter-- to complement six points. Josh Powell (8 points) perfectly timed an offensive rebound (and put back) of a miss by Sasha, one of seven boards collected. Even Adam Morrison got into the act, running a floater across the lane to beat the buzzer, the first of three shot attempts all money. But the biggest stud was Jordan Farmar, whose 24 points off the pine (6-8 from downtown alone) led all scorers and tied a career-high for the UCLA product. Even when the Bench was routinely dubbed a "Mob," they rarely looked this imposing.
-As for Derek Fisher, fighting a frustrating slump, he not only contributed ten points and was perfect on four free throws, but provided the moment my brother felt signaled something was a-brewing for the Lakers. Brian had also wanted to see the Lakers beat an upper-echelon team (presumably without Kobe Bryant doing all the lifting), and Dallas certainly qualifies. All in all, not a bad evening for the Kamenetzky Brothers' checklist.
So why do I like when stuff like this happens? Aside from relishing rare moments when I know what I'm talking about, it underscores a bigger point: The Lakers entered this game playing "meh," then saw the challenge of beating Dallas without Ron Artest or Luke Walton turn harder with Gasol shelved. That the Lakers were able to win isn't necessarily shocking. But the margin of victory was, along with the degree to which EVERYONE chipped in their two cents. That group resolve ultimately means more than the win itself. And the timing feels indicative of a reality players and coaches don't relish admitting (and I don't blame them, because it sounds bad): It's just hard at times gearing up for regular season games. Even against good teams, much less the Sacramentos and Golden States of the world. While I certainly don't condone playing bored against obviously inferior teams, I understand human nature. It's hard for these games to mirror the playoff's "meaningful" feeling for the Lakers, except maybe when their backs gets pushed against the wall for whatever reason. And that's where their best comes out.
Obviously, not always, because the Lakers looked awful recently against Cleveland and Phoenix, both teams worthy of their time. But sometimes, good teams just play poorly. But in the meantime, we've seen these Lakers conquer double overtime to win in Sacto (they're good at home) the day after learning about Artest's concussion. They won back-to-back in bonus periods on the road against Houston and Oklahoma City. And they wiped the floor with Phoenix at Staples. Thus, tonight serves as a reminder of not only how good the Lakers can be, but when they'll more often or not want to be. Sometimes it's because of the challenge. (Although Kobe kinda discounted my premise, insisting "it's easier to play against a team like Dallas because you know the focus is going to be there.") Sometimes motivation comes from outside chatter. And sometimes dudes just get sick of being open to criticism. "Everybody's been quite cognizant of the fact that we haven't played well," Phil Jackson noted before wishing there was a way to "bottle" tonight's production.
Odom, for example, has been critical of the effort these days. But when I brought up some"disappointing" games, the easiest-going Laker immediately rolled his eyes. "Funny, we've been having disappointing wins." When I reminded LO he'd expressed displeasure at how wins were manufactured, he conceded, noting a desire to clean things up defensively (and did they ever tonight). Asked later if this was the best win of the season, Odom acknowledged the knock against them (playing few good teams), but felt tonight featured an A-Game against A-Listers. I told Lamar that's what I was getting at before; the idea of the Lakers stepping up most as the obstacles piled up. Despite noting they wouldn't "pat ourselves on the back" over this win, he agreed:
"I think so. We're used to playing big games. The core of this team has been together three or four seasons. We usually rise to that. Usually what happens on Christmas usually doesn't happen to us."
Can it be hard, I wondered, for a team anxious to defend a title to stay geeked for the regular season? Even if they're not looking ahead?
"Not really," said Odom as he raised a bottle of Gatorade to his lips. "We've got the best players, the most competitive players. Pau. Kobe. Coach Phil. Derek Fisher. Not really." LO then began chugging and I thought we were done, but he raised a finger for me to wait. Thirst quenched, he added a caveat.
"But collectively, sometimes it might be a little hard."
Along these lines, the schedule's increasing difficulty may be the best thing that's happened to the Lakers in a while.