Lakers 84, Trail Blazers 80: Even Without Bynum, The Defense Gets It Done

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 20: Shannon Brown #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers attmepts to dribble as he collides with and teammate Kobe Bryant #24 and Gerald Wallace #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers at the Staples Center on March 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

There's no question but that Andrew Bynum has been the prime mover behind the Lakers' defensive surge since the All-Star break. Earlier today, however, league schoolmarms advised him that, as sanction for his Friday night war-crimes against Michael Beasley, his services would be neither required nor permitted in the Lakers' next two games. This left Drew's teammates to face the Portland Trail Blazers tonight with a Bynum-sized hole in their defense and left us to wonder whether this was the moment the Lakers' month-long roll would get knocked off course. Happily, it was not that moment. A second-half defensive clampdown catalyzed a late comeback that ended with an 84 to 80 Laker victory, their 12th in 13 dates since All-Star Weekend.

It's not that Bynum wasn't missed. His absence was felt in numerous ways, from the Blazers' audacity in driving the paint to a miserably bad Laker performance on the defensive glass to the 45 minutes Pau Gasol was forced to play. Nothing that happened on the court dispelled one's sense that Bynum's presence is completely essential to the champs' three-peat ambitions. And indeed, as the Blazers nursed a lead deep into the fourth quarter, it seemed like the Bynum suspension might've siphoned enough gas out of the Lakers' engine to allow Portland to steal the road upset. The cheese, to shift metaphors, was getting a touch sweaty.

The Blazers had built that lead with some fine D of their own. Despite weary legs from having played in Portland just last night, for three quarters they had the Laker offense looking ill at ease. Nate McMillan toggled between a man-to-man and zone defense, and the latter in particular caused a lot of messy static. Against the zone the Lakers struggled to get into their sets quickly and locate good angles to the basket. Cold outside shooting compounded the issue. Heading into the fourth period, just one Laker, Lamar Odom, had hit at least 50% from the field. Still, the home side trailed by only four, thanks to some equally grim shooting on Portland's part and a half-court triple that Matt Barnes banked in at the Q3 buzzer.

The Lakers' comeback in the fourth, which saw them finally regain the lead with less than two minutes remaining, featured 10 points and several dramatic shots from Kobe, and no doubt he was deadly down the stretch. But what set it all up was how the Lakers turned up the volume at the other end. In the decisive moments, the Lakers as a team ramped up their ball pressure and started aggressively jumping the Blazers' passing lanes. The Blazers, in turn, let their composure slip. After turning the ball over just six times in the first three periods, they coughed it up eight times in the fourth quarter alone. Not only did this result in empty offensive possessions they couldn't afford - in the second half, the visitors scored only 0.78 points per trip - but it allowed the Lakers to get running in transition and push toward the hoop before that annoying zone defense could get in place.

Still playing on an injured ankle, Kobe had his best performance in a couple weeks. He finished with 22 points on 21 shots (including free-throw possessions) to go with three assists and three turnovers. Though it's not a stat line that's going to vault him into the MVP race, his mobility was better than it's been the last several games, he had good range on his jumpshot, and for the most part he didn't force anything. On several occasions he was visibly and audibly enraged by the refs, and that's often been a precursor to his going rogue on offense, but tonight he kept a lid on it and maintained steady command of the attack.

For my money, though, the man of the match was Odom, who's putting together one hell of a season. Remember when Lamar was the inconsistent one? Somehow he's emerged as the Lakers' most dependable star. He excelled on several fronts tonight, flashing his splendid passing skills (including a couple gorgeous outlet passes), scoring efficiently (16 points on 11 shots), pulling in eight rebounds and just generally providing a smart, steady presence. What an invaluable luxury it is to plug him into the starting lineup when Bynum or Gasol is unavailable.

The Blazers deserve some appreciation for putting up a spirited fight. Their game at the Rose Garden yesterday ended less than 24 hours before tip-off tonight, and under the circumstances a lot teams would've just curled up and taken a beating. Ultimately they were done in by a ghastly shooting night from their backcourt. Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez combined to shoot 9 for 40. Some of that's good defense from the Lakers. Some of it's dead legs.

One final note from this one: Luke Walton is gone from the Laker rotation. He's pulled a DNP-CD in six straight games. Barnes is playing far too well for Luke to take the court at any moment that might affect the outcome of a game.

The Lakers' win total has now reached a cool 50. They're a full game clear of the Mavericks in the West and just percentage points behind the Celtics and Bulls. The Suns (Tuesday), Clippers (Friday) and Hornets (Sunday) are next, all at the friendly, 100% knife-free confines of Staples Center.











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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmoreHere's the Blazers Edge recap of tonight's action, should you wish to take in the view from Portland.

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