Now that's how you close out a ball game ... right? No? Whatever, we'll take it.
The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets by a final score of 92-89, in no small part because Denver decided to raise the stakes in a game neither side wants to play. Over the first two games of the season, the Lakers have been terrible at closing out games, but Denver showed them ways to blow a game that even the Lakers couldn't imagine. Over the last nine possessions of the game, Denver managed just four points, and the last 30+ seconds of play will be enough to ensure that Danilo Gallinari's New Years Resolution will be to suck less at work. The poor Rooster managed to airball a three which would have given Denver the lead with 30 seconds to go, but he was just getting started. The next possession saw (another) poor offensive opportunity for Kobe Bryant rebound long, and Gallinari leaked out to find himself behind the Lakers defense in transition. With nothing but air ahead of him, and just the slightest of pressure from Steve Blake, Gallinari blew an easy lefty layup which would have tied the game. Kobe picked up the absolute gift of a rebound and Denver could do nothing but foul with a second left on the clock. A 30 foot heave by Al Harrington later, the Lakers were on their way to a nice little three game winning streak.
In many ways, the last few minutes were a microcosm of the entire game, and likely what the entire season will be like. There will be many, many nights when the goal of each team will simply be to suck less than their opponents. Today's game was very much a lesson in sucking less. The Lakers shot below 10% from three for the 2nd time this week ... and still won the game. They turned the ball over 19 times ... and still won the game. The Lakers were not strong down the stretch tonight, especially after recapturing the lead with an 11-4 run ... but they still won the game. Once regaining the lead, the Lakers lost three straight possessions to the same unfortunate circumstances that have seen many a close game turn into losses recently, with 2 long, contested Kobe Bryant jumpers sandwiching a turnover by the same dude. Whether or not it is Kobe's fault that these are the shots the offense are generating is moot. What is not is that the Lakers offense has performed terribly so far this season in crunch time situations. But, credit the Lakers D for being feisty all game, holding the previously high flying Nuggets to less than a point per possession for the game, and considerably worse during the deciding moments. Oh ... and one other dude.
Andrew. Freaking. Bynum.
I'm sure there are ways for you to overstate how good Bynum looked in his first game. You could say he's going to be one of the best centers to ever play the game. You could say he's the next Shaq. You could say he's the best center in the league ... well, that last one isn't overstating so much as jumping to conclusions. Because if Andrew Bynum can play the entire season as he did in his first game, he will be the best center in the league. This is Andrew we remembered from last year's dominant 17-1 stretch, the guy who cleans up every board and challenges every shot, but he was also mixed with the Drew we've seen from time to time whose offensive skill and polish are far above any other center with his combination of size and athleticism. In short, for this one game, Drew was everything we could possibly have wanted him to be. No talk about whether he can live up to potential, or how good he might be if the Lakers fed him the ball more. He was the focal point of the Lakers offensive efforts when he was on the court, and he proved himself to be a damn good focal point. 29 points on 13/18 shooting, 13 boards, and 2 blocks (including a huge rejection of a Nené dribble drive in the final two minutes). Every time he touched the ball, it seemed likely he would score. He had the hook shots. He had the fadeaways. He had that glorious, glorious footwork. And he had the same ridiculous length that made the Lakers think he might be a player worth having all those years back. Put it all together, and dude was solid gold.
And while we're doling out the praise, his partner in post-dom, Pau Gasol, was pretty damn solid too. The Spaniard didn't pull down many boards, but with Drew cleaning the glass that's somewhat understandable. What Pau did instead is exactly what we'll need from him to let this team be successful. He knocked down a bunch of mid-range jumpers and provided Bynum with the space to operate. He, too, had a big block late in the game, and Gasol's defense, along with all the other bigs', has been fantastic just about the entire short season so far. Let's just say if the Lakers could have handled the pick and roll last year like they've been doing so far this year, another banner might have been hanging in the rafters.
As for Derek Fisher, well, he just continues to do Derek Fisher things. His shooting wasn't terrible, though he continues to take at least one shot per game that combines the worst judgment of every selfish gunner in the history of the league. He doled out 5 assists, which is unusually high for him. He struggled with foul trouble the whole night (eventually fouling out), and had a completely nondescript game ... until he made the kind of play that it seems only he can make. Today, it was stumbling halfway across the court to dive for an offensive rebound of his own errant three-point shot, coming up with the ball between two Nuggets players, and still having the presence of mind to call timeout in the 1/2 second before Denver could tie him up with a jump ball. Do these plays make the entire Derek Fisher experience worth it? Probably not, but they sure as hell make it more understandable. You want a guy on your team who makes plays like this.
The rest of the team struggled today, in a variety of ways. The most obvious was from the perimeter, where, as previously mentioned, the Lakers managed to shoot less than 10% from deep for the SECOND TIME THIS WEEK. Steve Blake was the primary culprit, going 0-6 from range. Kobe went 0-5, and Jason Kapono went 1-4. Nobody could buy a three, and yet the Lakers still put up 24 attempts. Last season, that would have had me screaming bloody murder, but for today, the vast majority of the shots made sense. Bynum had as many shot attempts as Kobe Bryant did. Pau Gasol was third on the team. This was inside-out basketball at it's worst, but it was still inside-out, so there is little reason to complain. Do the Lakers still seem to have major issues from three point range? Very much so. But it didn't kill them today, and the shots they took, for the most part, weren't bad shots. You have to think the shooting will turn around eventually.
Two of the players who have been key in the Lakers winning streak prior to today struggled a bit. Kobe shot 6-18 from the field, with 4 turnovers, and he took the air out of those last three Lakers possessions which all ended up poorly. But he also pulled down 10 boards and had 9 assists. Did he play the right way in the last two minutes? Not so much. The rest of the game? Very much so. Sadly, there are no mitigating circumstances for Metta World Peace. He's been one of the major bright spots off the bench so far this season, but today saw the return of the player that made us cringe so much in season's past. 0 points, 0-8 shooting, and very little work inside of 15 feet.
But none of it matters, because the Lakers are now finally whole. And though we expected a lot from Andrew Bynum this season, perhaps we still underestimated how much he means to this team. Coming into this game (with very small sample sizes), the Lakers were ranked 23rd in the league in Defensive rebound %. The Nuggets were ranked 1st. Tomorrow, those rankings will look mighty different as the Lakers, behind Bynum, dominated the glass on both sides of the court.
That's the work of a game changer. With Bynum, the Lakers have more than one.