"We’ve been pretty good defensively all year. All year," Kobe Bryant said, repeating himself for extra emphasis. "Numbers don’t lie."
It wasn't a direct comeback at the man who orchestrated the trade back in 1996 to bring Bryant to L.A. in the first place, but it was certainly a knowing statement. After all, for as close as Bryant and West are, The Logo said LeBron James was a better player than Bryant during the 2009 playoffs.
This time around, West predicted the Lakers collective age would lead to defensive breakdowns.
"If there's a loose ball now, how often do they get to it? The reason you can't play defense is because you can't," West was quoted as saying by the Orange County Register.
Yet, there they were on Tuesday forcing the Jazz into 17 turnovers resulting in 26 points on the other end, stealing the ball 11 times and ringing up six blocks to boot.
"Well, I went out and bought Omega-3s right away. I knew I needed to have something youthful," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, offering a sly retort after supporting West's statement over the weekend.
The Lakers may be "old" by NBA standards as they rely on five rotation players over the age of 30 in Bryant (32), Derek Fisher (36), Lamar Odom (31), Ron Artest (31) and Pau Gasol (30), but their defense is actually new and improving as it was put into place when the 23-year-old Andrew Bynum was ready to return to the starting lineup 15 games ago.
Since then, the Lakers have gone 12-3.
"We understand how important defense is in order for us to continue to be successful as a team and to continue to have a very good chance to win the championship," said Gasol. "We’ve been working on it consistently on it during practice and it’s been paying off."
Odom said the defense has grabbed the team's attention when complacency had started to set in as the Lakers approached the midway point of the season.
"It’s the way we’re practicing, what we’re going over and paying attention to the details," Odom said.
Utah head coach Jerry Sloan, whose team dropped its fifth straight, saw his team serve as a fountain of youth for the back-to-back champs.
"They were just much more alive than we were," Sloan said.
Bynum, who’s averaged 12.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks since returning to the starting lineup, continued his recent upward trend with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, 11 rebounds and three blocks against Utah.
He's a big reason why Jackson said before the game, "I don’t think we’re struggling, personally. I think we’re coming into our own as a team."
Finally, some optimism surrounding the Lakers season. Haven't heard much of that since their 8-0 start.
"Our defense has picked up a little bit and I think we’re getting more of an identity as far as a defensive team," Jackson said before the game. "With the addition of Bynum back, it really helps us out in the middle rebounding, challenging shots, those things are helping us."
The coach said his center was probably 90 percent back from his offseason knee surgery. Bynum said he still doesn't push it too hard as he rounds into form, for fear of another injury.
"I can’t do too much off the court just because of the condition my knee’s in," Bynum said. "It’s fine right now, I’m able to play, but I don’t want to do too much so it’s kind of a delicate balance."
Still, his responsibility as the focal point of the Lakers defense inside seems to have energized him.
"That’s traditionally a center’s role," Bynum said. "Just changing shots and being there to block shots just anchors the D because they start missing shots, we get fastbreak opportunities …"
Bynum isn't the only one looking better as the year's gone on. As I detailed in my column heading into Tuesday, Bryant has been very efficient on offense as of late. After going 7-of-11 for 21 points against the Jazz, Bryant is now 68-of-123 (55.3 percent) for his last eight games.
"It feels good," Bryant said with a laugh as he looked down at his right knee as he stamped his right foot into the floor several times. "It’s just ratcheting it up. As the season goes on, I’ve always tried to get better. I’ve always tried to improve ... I work on my game all the time. Just because it’s my 15th year, doesn’t mean I can’t get better."
It's almost a nightly note about the team's most consistent player, but it's worth mentioning Odom's 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, along with eight rebounds and four assists.
One of the makes was one of the most spectacular buckets of his 12-year career -- a tear drop rainbow that he tossed into the air after getting fouled and right before his momentum sent him sprawling out of bounds on the baseline.
"I just got it up in the air and was able to drop it," said Odom who was more proud that he made the ensuing free throw after the miracle shot to complete the 3-point play and put the Lakers up by 35 with 9:36 remaining in the fourth.
"He’s playing with a lot of swag right now," said Bynum. "He’s knocking the jumpshots in with confidence and when he does that, he’s pretty much unguardable. As far as that shot goes, he’s definitely in a zone right now and I want it to continue for as long as possible. I think we’re unbeatable when he plays well."
For the second-straight game, the Lakers had four or more players with 17 points or more. Both of the balanced efforts led to wins. The spread-out offense contributed to the Lakers shooting 62 percent from the field as a team and passing out a season-high 34 assists.
"We just try to make the right plays," said Bryant. "Defenses collapse, we’re able to hit guys and if they rotate, they hit another guy. It’s as simple as that. We just try to make the right play."
Before the game, Jackson said he would like to make some playing time adjustments.
"I want to get Fish into a level where he’s splitting time with Steve Blake, but that might not happen right away," Jackson said.
Fisher played 23 minutes and 21 minutes Tuesday, putting up eight points and two assists. Blake played 23 minutes and 18 seconds, registering five points, four assists and three steals.
Jackson also said he'd like to use Luke Walton more with Matt Barnes out. Walton, who Jackson commended for his improved play, had nine points on 4-for-4 shooting along with three assists.
With the Lakers lead swelling to as many as 38 points, the fourth quarter garbage time belonged to little-used rookies on both teams. L.A. rooks Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter combined for five points and were outshone by Utah's Jeremy Evans who scored 10 points himself on 5-of-6 shooting, most of his baskets coming on dunks.
"I always try to bring the energy, no matter how far we're down," Evans said. "Just keep playing until the game's through."
A win by San Antonio on Monday clinched that the Spurs will have the best record in the Western Conference through games played Feb. 6 -- the deadline to select the All-Star coaching staff. So, Gregg Popovich & Co. are coming to L.A. and Jackson, well, he is going to go anywhere but here.
“I definitely wouldn’t want to be a part of it this year,” Jackson said before the game. “Running into those people, all the same people. It’s better to get out of town and enjoy your life.”
Quote of the night: "He tried to get a little bit too freaky on it." -- Bynum on why Shannon Brown missed a breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter.
Stats of the night: The Lakers have now beaten the Jazz 17 straight games at Staples Center ... It was L.A.'s league-leading eighth wire-to-wire victory of the season. Boston is second with seven. The Lakers had seven wire-to-wire wins all of last season.