The gunning. It will have to stop. It is not sustainable. It is not a strategy for winning basketball. Well, Kobe Bryant seems determined to disprove this notion, and for two glorious nights, Laker fans have been treated to an epic show of his scoring brilliance. Scoring 40 points on 14-31 shooting, largely from midrange and off the pick-and-roll, Kobe obliterated everything the Jazz threw at him for three quarters until the weight of the minutes on a back-to-back seemingly caught up to him. We perhaps should be thankful that Raja Bell elected to leave Kobe hanging during the summer of 2010, during which Bell turned down an opportunity to come to the Lakers, because Bell was one of the primary defensive culprits for the Jazz, eventually fouling out against Kobe in overtime. As Kobe finally sputtered down the stretch and some of the worse instances of hero ball came to the fore, however, the Lakers were saved by perhaps the most heartening thing they could take from a game like this: a rock solid defense.
If there was any reason for Mike Brown to be hired, it was to implement a soul-crushing, championship-caliber defense, and for tonight, it carried the Lakers through an otherwise brutal offensive performance outside of Kobe. The Jazz shot 38.7% from the field, and it would have been a much, much worse 31.8% had Paul Millsap not put the team on his back and put up 29 points on 14-24 shooting, largely by outworking Pau Gasol, Luke Walton, and Metta World Peace on the perimeter, in the post, and for rebounds. Outside of Millsap though? The Lakers defense exacted its will on the Jazz, and one person we can thank for that is Andrew Bynum.
This isn't just recognition for his clutch play down the stretch, in which Bynum swatted an Al Jefferson shot with a second left in regulation and got a putback on a missed Kobe jumper a sequence beforehand, but the fact that like last season, he is putting the effort in on defense when his shots aren't falling on the other end. Bynum limited Jefferson, Bynum's likely primary competitor for a spot at the All-Star Game in Orlando who had been averaging 22.6 points in the last five games to a line of 11 points on 5-17 shooting. He also had five blocks, continuing his ownership of the interior, and while his rebounding wasn't the superlative numbers we have seen in past games, he did a decent job cleaning up the glass.
We also saw a few defensive wrinkles from Brown, as when Kobe checked out with 2:39 left in the third quarter, the Lakers bench unit trotted out a 3-2 zone that had some mixed success. Given the deplorable state of the offense, it's fairly clear what Brown is focusing on in the limited practices the Lakers have had so far, and overall, the defense delivered. The easiest buckets for the Jazz on the night game in transition off turnovers, in which the Lakers' bigs tiredness or simple lack of caring was exposed in what has become a familiar theme this season, but in the halfcourt, the Lakers were good.
As for the offense, Kobe's performance was a thing of necessity as much as it was a show of his dominance. Both Laker bigs looked miserable near the basket, whether it was Bynum rushing on shots or Gasol missing easy hooks over the much shorter Millsap. In the third quarter, both bigs scored only one basket and both came off a Derek Fisher alley-oop attempt. When the two other pillars of the Lakers' offense weren't performing well and Kobe was inexplicably left wide open off the pick-and-roll time and time again until Utah finally decided to double him in the fourth, it's hard to blame him for assuming the grand majority of the offensive responsibilities. We can perhaps blame tired legs for both Bynum and Gasol on a back-to-back, but needless to say, the Lakers' offense is going to have problems if both can't perform well.
Both bigs in particular had trouble establishing deep post position, with the few exceptions being a pair of nice hook shots from Gasol in the second quarter, in which he was able to seal his man in deep position because Kobe set a cross screen to give him room to set up in the deep post. Why the Lakers continue to try to let both bigs jostle for position far from the basket when an option like a cross screen, taken out of the playbook of Ettore Messina, is available is baffling, but hopefully it will become an item of emphasis once the Lakers' schedule slows down the next two weeks. Gasol hitting a clutch corner three in overtime was nice, but that's not where we want to see him work. Besides Kobe, the only starter who was producing on offense was Matt Barnes, who put up 11 points on 5-6 shooting, but was limited by foul trouble throughout the night.
Kobe was also needed to offset a terrible performance by the Lakers' bench, as without Josh McRoberts (toe), Troy Murphy (stomach flu), and Jason Kapono (kids!) -- alright, maybe not Kapono -- the Laker bench was outscored 35 to 11 by their Utah counterparts. Metta World Peace continues to bizarrely chuck up long jumpers instead of operating in the post, Luke Walton proved that last night's comeback performance was a fairly big fluke, and no one offered much to the Lakers offensively. Walton and MWP also took their turns getting abused by Millsap on the block, and as we saw last season, a lack of quality depth in the frontcourt doesn't work wonders for the performance of your starters in the long-term, especially in a truncated season. Hopefully McBobs and Murphy can find their way back to the court quickly.
Today also saw Darius Morris' first real minutes in an NBA game, as he checked in at the end of the first quarter, giving Metta World Peace a nice dish in transition for a dunk. He scored a pair of buckets off the pick-and-roll, using the space off the pick to take his man all the way to the basket for a layup. We also saw a few rookie mistakes, as he got yanked in the fourth quarter after turning the ball over twice. As Steve Blake left the game with a rib contusion and might be questionable in the near future, he will at least have opportunities to show whether he belongs in the rotation or not the next few games.
Altogether, as Chris noted in the preview, this was a classic trap game for the Lakers -- a back-to-back after a superlative Kobe performance against a surging Utah team on the road -- and if someone told you before the game that Kobe would shoot the ball 31 times, Bynum and Gasol would combine for 26 points on 10-27 shooting, and that the bench would put up 11 points, I would have wagered that the Lakers lost badly. One way or another, the Lakers are learning how to win ugly, and in a season like this one, you take wins where you can find them. The Lakers have now won eight of their last ten, and if the defense Mike Brown preaches is becoming this team's identity, you can ask for a lot worse this season.
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