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Saturday, March 27, 2010
Lakers 109, Rockets 101: One really impressive moment

By Brian Kamenetzky

Do not be fooled by the final score. In this case, objects in mirror were not nearly as close as they appeared.

Not after the first 12 minutes of play, at least.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant did it all Saturday night against Houston, finishing one dime shy of the team's first triple-double of '09-'10.



In a lot of ways, the first quarter of Saturday night's game could easily have been the fifth of Friday's debacle in Oklahoma City. The Lakers turned the ball over five times leading to eight Rockets points, allowed easy buckets inside, and ignored too many shooters on the perimeter. After one, the Rockets led 34-27, behind despite shooting well over 50 percent from the floor.

From there, though, the Lakers raised their level far to high for the wee Rockets to reach. (Congratulations to those who saw the height joke coming.) Over the first six minutes of the second quarter, the Lakers scraped their way back into the game, erasing Houston's lead. Over the final six minutes, they dropped the hammer, outscoring the Rockets 20-2, the 20 coming unanswered. It was 360 seconds of total domination.

Here's how it happened: -6:10- Derek Fisher triggers to Kobe Bryant on the left wing, and the ball is eventually worked back to the right side before making its way back to Kobe, just beyond the left elbow. He catches with a step on Jermaine Taylor, thanks to a subtle screen from DJ Mbenga. He attacks through the lane. Bucket. 2-0.

Taylor tries to attack on Fish, but is stood up, then pressured by Mbenga. He misses a wild shot, then commits a foul.

-5:15- Fish feeds Ron Artest popping off the left wing, above the arc. Nobody in a white jersey picks him up, and Artest hits the triple. 5-0.

At the other end, Artest bodies up Luis Scola, then uses a quick left hand to tip the ball away and force a jump ball.  The Rockets win it, but Brooks is forced into a tough jumper late in the shot clock. Brick.

-4:30- Kobe brings the ball up the right side, and uses a great Pau Gasol screen on Trevor Ariza to find space. He penetrates to the free throw line and rises to shoot. As the help comes, he finds Gasol rolling to the bucket. Great pass, easy finish. 7-0.

-3:30- After the teams trade missed jumpers (a bunch of 'em, in Houston's case...) Kobe again comes up the right side, and quite literally sets up Ariza to be rubbed off by another Gasol screen. Kobe started left around the pick, then dribbled back to his right and dropped Ariza down a foot or so to line him up better towards the screen before again moving moving over Pau. Ariza goes under Gasol, so Kobe goes back to his right and penetrates. As Scola brings the help, Kobe finds a wide open Fisher in the right corner. Three. 10-0, timeout Houston.

When people talk about Kobe's ability to control a game, too often they're referring to his scoring, instead of stuff like this. But even though he didn't shoot, he absolutely moved the pieces (on both teams) around the board to create points for the Lakers. Great stuff.

-3:00- Out of the timeout, the Lakers force yet another missed jumper, this time from Aaron Brooks on a baseline stepback. At the other end, it's an Odom/Gasol pick and roll. Pau brings Lamar Odom around Scola, and as Chuck Hayes jumps out, LO makes a pretty bounce pass to Pau cutting to the hoop. Too easy. 12-0.

At this point the Lakers, unlike the first quarter where they were solid only on one end, are bringing some defense to go with the scoring. Kobe hounds Taylor on the wing, forcing him to pass to Brooks in the corner. Fish shades him baseline, where Gasol was quick to drop and cut off penetration. Trapped, Brooks passes to someone he sees sitting courtside on the opposite sideline.

In fairness, the guy was wide open.

Bill Bishop/NBAE via Getty Images
Pau Gasol was a monster at the scoring end of the pick and roll en route to a season high 30 points.



-2:30- Gasol and Odom again work the pick and roll. Twice, actually. On the second try, Odom actually goes away from the screen, draws Taylor and Hayes down to the baseline, then hits Pau at the left elbow. Jumper. Twine. 14-0.

Unable to get into the paint, Houston is really struggling to generate anything offensively. Taylor tries to work against Artest, and can't. Ariza's penetration is cut off by Odom. Brooks is forced into a lefty prayer at the arc as the shot clock expires. In transition, Kobe takes the ball the other way, and gets fouled at the rack. He makes one of two. 15-0.

At the other end, Taylor is absolutely swallowed up by Artest near the bucket. With nowhere to go, the poor rook makes a couple moves and tries to shoot, but is spiked down by Ron Ron who screams and poses for the crowd before heading up court.

The Lakers are rolling. Downhill. Fast.

-1:30- Having officially morphed into the Stockton/Malone Utah Jazz teams of the mid-90s, the Lakers again go pick and roll, this time with Kobe and Gasol. This time, Gasol is met by a triple team as he accepts Kobe's pass, but kicks it right back out to Bryant, who feeds Artest on the wing for a wide open three. He misses, but Pau is fouled by Scola on the rebound. Two for two. 17-0.

-:35- After Artest forces a turnover from Brooks, Kobe uses a Gasol screen to penetrate along the right wing. As the Rockets converge, Kobe kicks to Fisher at the top of the arc, who drains the wide open three. 20-0.

Mercifully, Scola hits a mid-range jumper at the other end to stop the run, but I'm going to go ahead and say the damage at this point was done. The Lakers had totally overwhelmed the home team, and went into the half up 17 having allowed a scant 11 points to the Rockets over the second twelve.

There were some marginally interesting moments in the second half, as the Rockets managed to pull within nine five minutes into the third quarter. Seven straight points from Kobe killed any comeback hopes, and from there it was a question of keeping Houston at arms length and waiting to see if Bryant would earn L.A.'s first triple-double of the season.

The answer? No.  He sat down with 5:33 to play, taking 17 points, 10 boards, and nine dimes with him. Slacker. (As an aside, isn't it nice to live in a world where Phil Jackson sitting Kobe one help short of a trip-doub doesn't spawn 15 columns about friction between star and coach? I think so.)

In the end, the Lakers had a very solid, much-needed win in the wake of Friday's disappointment. To say the second quarter was a "make-or-break" moment oversells it a little, but had the Lakers continued to let an obviously inferior Rockets squad give them the runaround and let the game get away, it wouldn't have been pretty. The team, from coaches on down, have changed their tone over the last week or two, talking like a group focused on the playoffs, understanding of the challenges ahead, and, importantly, ready to play at an elite level with some consistency.

After a bad start Saturday night, they fit the part.

Importantly, contributions came from up and down the roster. I mentioned Kobe, and Gasol had a season high 30 points. Odom finished with 13/13/3, Fish with 15 points. Importantly, the bench kicked in as well, with Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown combining for 23 points.

And Mbenga deserves some props, too. He chipped in with four points, and contested a host of Rockets shots at the bucket. DJ is never elegant, but he was a presence over his 6:38 of run. Not long minutes, but quality.

Interestingly, one night after a run in with assistant coach Brian Shaw on the bench, Sasha Vujacic didn't play. If it happens again Monday in New Orleans, we could officially have a trend on our hands.