Last night's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves was many things. Entertaining. High scoring. Fast paced. Bat shit insane. These attributes were obvious to anybody watching. But, from the Lakers perspective, there are actually a great many positive takeaways that one could easily have missed if they only focused on the primary narrative. Indeed, this was actually a victory the Lakers should be proud of. Last night, they won a game in the same way that they have lost so many this season. They out-worked, out-hustled, and out-scrapped their opponents, and ended up winning a game they should have lost.
That's right. They should have lost. The team that was once up as many as 29 points should have lost, and for none of the reasons normally associated with losing large leads. They didn't take their foot off the gas pedal. They didn't start taking their opponent for granted. They didn't get careless. Instead, for 18 minutes, the Los Angeles Lakers were the beneficiaries of one of the flukiest shooting displays I've ever seen, draining three ball after three ball after three ball. They built a 29 point lead because their lead increased by 3 on every wasted Timberwolves possession. They built a 29 point lead because their lead increased by 1 whenever the Wolves scored. The Lakers just couldn't miss. All of them. Every single Lakers player that entered the game hit a three point basket.
We knew it couldn't last. They knew it couldn't last. The Wolves knew it couldn't last. (Quick Tangent: Can we take a second to compliment the boldness of Rick Adelman? Oh, you can't miss from the outside? In that case, we will now play a defense that dares you to shoot from the outside. How do you like them apples?) But nobody could have expected regression to the mean to be quite so brutal a mistress. At the pinnacle of their bombardment, the Lakers were 10-13 from three point range. They ended the night 12-32. For all the insanity of the opening minutes, the Lakers ended up only slightly better than their season average from distance. From the field overall, they were well below their season average. It's weird to think about because the Lakers went supernova in the first half but, when it comes to the act of putting the ball through the basket, the Lakers were actually sub-par on the night.
And the Wolves weren't. Minnesota was above its season average from the field, and the league's worst three point shooting team (by a significant margin) ended up shooting 46% from distance on the night. Their 10 made field goals were only two short of what the Lakers managed, and the Lakers needed an additional 10 attempts. This from a team that, until last night, was well below 30% shooting on the season. They didn't explode with the same volatility that the Lakers did, but they didn't regress either. The Lakers might have had the crazier outlier, but by games end, the Wolves were the only outlier left standing.
So the question becomes: How did the Lakers actually win this game? In a game more easily remembered for its sizzle and fizzle, the Lakers actually won with grit and grind. Missing their All-Star center and the best rebounder in the league, the Lakers won by out-rebounding the Wolves by the margin of 57-40. Three Lakers (including Mr. Do-Everything, Kobe Bryant) had double digit rebounds. In what ended up being the most telling possession of the entire game, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison (who spent roughly 12 minutes on the night as the two biggest Lakers on the floor) played volleyball at the rim, creating 3 offensive rebounds in the span of 1.5 seconds before Jamison finally put the ball in the basket. The best part about that play? Minnesota's bruising center, Nikola Pekovic, was just standing there between the two of them. He could do nothing but watch as the Lakers just kept grinding.
When the Lakers stopped making outside shots, they started attacking the basket with a bit more regularity and getting to the free throw line. The Lakers had 25 attempts to the Wolves' 18, and 18 of those 25 attempts came after the Lakers' Champaign Supernova came to an end. Oh, and they also made 21 out of 25, including Pau Gasol's vital, slump-busting, 5-5 from the line. The Lakers also took care of the ball (at least by their standards), with 12 turnovers. They did turn the ball over too much as the Wolves closed the deficit, but any game in which they are on the positive side in the turnover category has to be deemed a success. Oh, and the 27 assists on 39 made baskets didn't hurt either.
Yes, the Lakers nearly lost to a bad, struggling Minnesota Timberwolves team that was also bearing the weight of a big man injury. Yes, they nearly gave up a 29 point lead. Yes, they settled for too many of the outside shots that Minnesota was begging them to take, though it's tough to blame them for 2-19 without also acknowledging 10-13. If you were to tell me that the Lakers would shoot 37.5% from three on 32 attempts for the night, I'd be satisfied with that as the offensive strategy a small ball team must play with. Still, this could have been yet another terrible loss. If you want negatives, there are plenty available.
But take a second look at the box score. Forget about Three-apalooza, and forget about the collapse, and consider just the final score and the cold, hard numbers of this game. How many times this season have we seen the Lakers on the other end of that box? How many times have we seen them shoot better than their opponent, only to lose because the opponent worked harder? How many times have the Lakers been in the hole because they gave their opponents a large quantity of extra possessions, through turnovers and offensive rebounds given up? How many times have they responded to a bad spell of play by collapsing even further?
The Lakers built up a 29 point lead, and let that lead shrink down to four before they clamped down and gutted out the victory. The easy narrative is to talk about that collapse, to talk about how the Lakers almost wasted 18 minutes of perfect shooting. But there is another narrative, one that has to be viewed from a distance so as to avoid being blinded by the glitz and glamour of the narrative in the marquee. In that narrative, the Lakers won a contest they probably shouldn't have won, against an opponent who played better than they did. They won because they worked harder, because they wanted it more. In the midst of nearly losing a game that would have been so very stereotypical of a Lakers team that has frustrated us to no end this season, the Lakers team that actually showed up was one that we've been waiting for all season.