The Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns on Friday night in what is hopefully the final game of the Bernie Bickerstaff era. Bickerstaff wasn't asked to do much with this team. The Lakers have an abundance of talent. They just needed the right environment in which to put the talent on display. Bickerstaff removed the offensive shackles placed on the team and just let the guys do what they've done their whole lives, play ball. The Lakers rewarded him with a 3-1 record, the only loss coming in the final possessions against a great Spurs team. Bernie can now make the illustrious claim that he has the highest winning percentage for any coach in Lakers history, 75%.
Last night's game will quickly fade from our memories as just another contest in a long 82-game regular season grind. It wasn't against a memorable opponent. It wasn't with the newly-signed Mike D'Antoni at the helm. It didn't feature the deadly Nash-Howard pick and roll that we have been waiting anxiously for. This was about as close to a meaningless game as one will find. However, when one digs a little deeper, the Lakers gave a glimpse of what this team can become. This Lakers team is a juggernaut just waiting to hit its stride.
The Lakers offense last night scored 114 points in 95 possessions for an offensive rating of roughly 120. Make no mistake, this Suns team is not good defensively. In fact, they are downright awful as they are ranked dead last in defensive rating, giving up 110 points per 100 possessions. But even by the Suns' depressing standard, the Lakers were excellent. When looking at the box score, the thing that stands out to me is that the Lakers ought to be able have this kind of offense on a nearly nightly basis.
Pau Gasol finally showed the type of mid-range game that has been non-existent all season. The big Spaniard has consistently shot around 45% on mid and long range two point attempts during his career in LA. Prior to last night, he was only 20 of 72 (28%) on the season. He hadn't been able to convert the wide open shots at the top of the key consistently. His shooting slump came to an abrupt end when during a three-minute stretch in the first quarter Gasol torched the Suns as they sagged off of him to help on Howard. The play-by-play looks like this:
- 7:43 - Pau Gasol makes 22-foot jumper (Kobe Bryant assists)
- 6:39 - Pau Gasol makes 21-foot jumper (Kobe Bryant assists)
- 5:56 - Pau Gasol makes 19-foot jumper (Kobe Bryant assists)
- 5:09 - Pau Gasol makes 18-foot jumper (Metta World Peace assists)
- 4:33 - Pau Gasol makes 21-foot jumper (Darius Morris assists)
The Suns, to their credit, changed up their defense in light of this. They began to keep Gasol's defender higher up in the key to stay with Pau rather than providing help on Howard. They instead chose to bring the help defense from the weak-side by having Metta World Peace's defender sag down near the key to attempt to strip Howard of the ball. The Lakers countered by kicking the ball to Metta World Peace who launched 10 three's on the night. Normally the idea of Metta firing that many shots is cringe inducing, but these were the wide open variety and he proceeded to hit half of them on his way to a 22-point night.
This is what has to make Lakers fans giddy. When this team is fully healthy, the Lakers will be able to run a pick and roll at the top of the key with Nash and Howard. Pairing the best pick and roll point guard and big man will be unstoppable without the defense rotating to help. But who will they rotate off of? Certainly they won't leave a rejuvenated and more efficient Kobe Bryant for a wide open jump shot. Teams have been choosing to sag off of Gasol from the top and World Peace from the corner. Tonight both players got the same type of shots they have gotten all season long, but tonight they made the wide open shots. The result was a season high 114 points on the scoreboard.
The other thing that is becoming evident is that the Lakers are incredibly fortunate to have acquired Jordan Hill for essentially nothing. The unquestioned best player on the bench is providing the Lakers with something they severely lacked last year, a solid three-man rotation on the front line. Jordan Hill's play so far this season can't be understated. He is currently the league leader in offensive rebound rate and it isn't close. The star power of his teammates that draws the opponents attention, combined with his constant effort and nose for the ball allows him to pull down nearly one out of four Lakers misses to give the offense another chance. It is the primary reason his PER is over 20. He has shown an ability to hit a mid-range jump shot along with a few small hook shots near the basket. Last night he had another highly efficient game as he scored 10 points on 50% shooting with 5 rebounds (4 offensive), 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and no turnovers. Well done, sir. Well done.
The final take-away from last night's game is turnovers. After all the talk about the Lakers' issues with turnovers, we can finally say something positive in this regard. The Lakers finished with only 11 turnovers, a season low. Sure Howard had his issues (4 turnovers again), but the rest of the team played within themselves and did not commit turnovers trying to do more than they are capable of. The Lakers can live with Howard's turnovers, which have always plagued the big man, so long as the rest of the team takes care of the ball. They did tonight and the offense put up a season high in points.
Defensively, the Lakers regressed tonight, but it didn't matter when the offense is virtually scoring at will. The good news is that when the Lakers focused on defending in the fourth quarter, they suffocated the Suns. Phoenix scored only 18 points in the fourth quarter after tallying 84 through three quarters. With two minutes to play in the third, the game was all knotted up at 84. Over the next twelve minutes the Lakers outscored the Suns 32 to 17 to put the game away. The Lakers will need to find that 4th quarter type of defense more often to beat the elite teams, but tonight it was enough to get the win.
The Lakers now move on to the next game, and the next coach. Thanks again should go out to Bernie Bickerstaff. You did a great job at getting out of the way and letting the guys play.