One could make the case that the Lakers possess the best "Big Three" in the league, even better than that team from South Beach. Unfortunately the Lakers big three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum have yet to put together a dominating group performance. The season began with Bynum out due to suspension; he then returned and Gasol struggled; then both big men faltered while Kobe went on his scoring binge; then Kobe dialed back the field goal attempts and neither big men emerged from their funk. Tonight we were finally treated to the offensive potential that this trio is capable of as they combined for 86 points. Not only did this outburst result in a win, but it resulted in the first time in thirteen games the Lakers broke the century mark on offense.
The Lakers began the game by force feeding Pau Gasol, whose efforts bore fruit tonight as he scored 14 points in the opening period on 6 of 8 shooting. The second and third periods saw the offense shift to Kobe on the perimeter and Bynum inside. Then in the fourth quarter after a furious Wolves comeback, the door was slammed shut in a 12-2 run where the Lakers scored on six straight possession, with each member of the trio contributing 4 points in the run. It was a stark contrast to the struggles seen in many of the close games the Lakers have endured so far this season.
Pau Gasol's offensive performance was nearly flawless. He scored 28 points on 11 of 15 shooting while dishing out three assists with not a single turnover. He played like the Pau Gasol that has two championship rings and not like the passive player that infuriates this loyal fan base. Gasol's performances have been anything but consistent as he has flipped back and forth from white swan to black swan. He showed once again what he is capable of tonight. Now the Lakers need him to demonstrate it consistently.
Andrew Bynum's performance was solid tonight. He was efficient with his short and mid range jump shot, making 5 of 10 attempts outside of 5 feet. In the fourth quarter he focused on using whatever energy he had left to punish the much smaller Timberwolves, finishing with three dunks in the period. He also shot a very respectable 5 of 7 from the charity stripe. Contributing 21 points as a third option is the type of productivity that can make this Lakers team a real threat. The one area he must continue to work on is passing out of the double team. Tonight the Lakers big man led the team in turnovers with four.
Then there is Kobe Bryant, the Lakers franchise leader in field goals made - a record he set tonight. Kobe is the only piece of the trio that has been consistent. He has performed at a very high level all season long, save the game against Denver. Tonight was no different as he poured in 35 points, including 5 of 9 from behind the arc. The latter is especially impressive as he has struggled mightily from that distance. If Kobe can reestablish himself as a deep threat it could pay huge dividends for an offense that has been downright pathetic for much of the season. The Lakers have not had much in the form of shooting threats to space the floor for the big men.
Speaking of shooting threes to spread the floor, welcome to permanent playing time Andrew Goudelock. The young rookie, known for his willingness to pull the trigger and unbelieveable range, has now demonstrated in three straight games that the kid can be a huge offensive spark off the bench. We all knew about his ability to shoot the three. The real surprise has been his Tony Parker-esque running tear drop. Goudelock was supposed to be the back-up shooting guard to fill the void left by Shannon Brown. With Steve Blake's injury and Darius Morris' struggles, he was given the opportunity to spend some time at the point guard spot and he has certainly made the best of it. He has made 6 of 10 threes in his last three games and has averaged 11.3 points per game doing so. Perhaps the biggest compliment for Goudelock is the comment a Bucks fan sitting behind me made during the previous night's game. After hitting a trio of threes, the fan behind me yelled, "Don't leave him to double Kobe!" That is the type of threat the Lakers need alongside their big three, someone to make the opposition pay for sending a double team.
With the contributions from Goudelock, the Lakers' three point shooting is showing major signs of improvement. The Lakers have made at least a half-dozen threes in five of the last six games, compared to accomplishing that feat only once in the eleven games prior. In addition to Goudelock, Derek Fisher and Bryant have rediscovered their shooting touch from behind the arc. Over the last six games, the trio of Bryant, Fisher, and Goudelock have combined to hit 24 of 55 attempts, good for 43.6% from deep.
Unfortunately not all news was good news tonight. While the duo of Gasol on Bynum were great offensively, the Lakers needed every point from them because they got killed on the defensive glass tonight. Bynum and Gasol combined for only 13 rebounds, one fewer than Kobe Bryant. The Timberwolves frontline of Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Michael Beasley combined 34 rebounds, doubling up the Lakers frontline of Bynum, Gasol, and World Peace. The Lakers are one of the best teams at holding the opposition to a low shooting percentage, further demonstrating that tonight by holding Minnesota to 38.6% shooting. When that kind of shooting defense was combined with rebound dominance, the Lakers had one of the best defenses in the league. They need to get back to controlling their own glass if they want to reestablish the elite defense they started the year with.
The other area of concern for the Lakers is the production at the small forward position. Neither Metta World Peace nor Matt Barnes have performed consistently or efficiently. Tonight they combined to shoot 1 for 7 after last night's 3 for 13 performance. Despite World Peace being guarded by the much smaller Luke Ridenour, he wasn't able to take advantage of the mismatch. The offensive production, or lack there of, is one of the main reasons for the Lakers' offensive woes recently. Teams are sagging off and sending double teams to help in the post. Mike Brown may want to consider playing Kobe at the small forward when the match-up is favorable to create more time for some of the shooters on the roster. The decision to move Barnes back to the bench should benefit Barnes and the Lakers. Barnes's biggest offensive contribution is his ability to cut to the basket and finish. The cutting lanes aren't available often when both Gasol and Bynum are on the floor. When the Lakers go to the bench and take one of the big men out, the lanes open up for Barnes to exploit.
Tonight was a much needed win for the Lakers. Their recent road struggles have had many questioning whether or not this team can win a title as currently constructed. While we don't know the answer to the aforementioned question with certainty, tonight showed the offensive potential that still lies within a team with the best "big three" in the league. The combination of the offensive potential and their ability to be an elite team defensively should always keep them in the discussion as a title contender. It really boils down to rediscovering those abilities and turning that potential into tangible results.