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Lakers Handle Pistons as Kobe Finds Balance

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Lakers fans understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, watching Kobe Bryant play, it's almost as though the game in progress becomes secondary. The greatness of Kobe Bryant simply transcends the moment, and you could almost forget that there is an event taking place, the outcome of which matters quite a bit to the players, coaches, and indeed, Kobe Bryant himself. You could almost forget that anything bigger was happening than you, sitting transfixed, watching Kobe be Kobe. This was one of those nights — not quite to the extent of 81 points, or 62 in three quarters, but nonetheless.

And yet, even as Kobe Bryant finished with 40 points for the 100th time in his career — only the third player in history to reach that mark — there was a game taking place. And it just so happens that it was a game that mattered just a little bit more than your average November NBA game against middling competition. The Lakers were on their first "losing streak" of the season, having lost their last two games, and those two losses had been bad ones. Too soon to be freaking out? Yes, of course. Important to right the ship? Also, yes.

So while it would be so tempting to simply bask in the beauty of Kobe's one hundredth 40-point game, and the way in which he scored those 40 points, we're going to resist that urge and get into some other observations about this mostly encouraging game.

Okay, so maybe we'll bask for a moment, at least. Let's do this quasi HP-style.


Thing That Mesmerized Me

 

Kobe Bryant. Perhaps it was poetic, in some sense, that Kobe started the night with an unchallenged airball, before roaring out to a frustrating 1-6 start. Then, in a performance that is indicative of Kobe's challenge this year, he shot 16-23 for the rest of the game, including an unbelievable stretch in the second and third quarters in which he hit 12 of 15 shots.

The challenge for Kobe, this year perhaps more than ever before, is adaptation. As most of you know, I'm a huge fan of his significantly augmented post game, and I'm not alone. I think it could equate to a leap in Kobe's overall game, as well as increased longevity at a very high level as he plays into his thirties. However, as dominant as Bryant's post game has been in the early season, it has at times been so much the focus that it has rendered both Kobe and the team one-dimensional. If Kobe is going to play almost exclusively from the post, and the Lakers are going to force the ball into him on every possession, then defenses will pack it into the paint and both Bryant and the Lakers as a whole will sputter. Even Stu and Joel picked up on this, admiring Kobe's new post moves while also calling for him to mix it up, keeping opponents guessing rather than falling into a predictable routine.

Last night, he did just that, and he was brilliant. If the last few years have been "Good Ol' Kobe," and this year has been "Post Kobe," then his 100th forty-point game was a devastating combination of the two. At times, he posted up. At others, he attacked from the perimeter, off the dribble or on cuts within the offense. At times, he created head-shakingly easy shots for himself with superb footwork and the full utilization of the broadest, most fundamentally sound skill set in existence. At others, he simply hit impossible shots, as he always has done — fadeaway jumpers after absorbing the foul, super-extended hook-layups, and no-look, over-the-head toss-ins that have no business finding the net. But best of all, while busy being unstoppable, he still found time to look for his teammates.

As Kobe's game changes, and the needs of his team also change, teams will adapt to counter him. For Kobe, continued dominance — both for himself, and for his team — depend not on any one skill, but on his ability to balance all of his many skills, keeping defenses guessing and playing not only to his strengths, but to his team's. This is what he did last night.

Oh, and 40 points on 29 field goal attempts. Sweet.


Things I Liked

 

The second and third quarter efforts. The Lakers played very good defense during these two periods, holding the Pistons to 0.90 points per possession. They were active and persistent, and the Pistons' offense often struggled to find a shot at all (let alone a good one) before the buzzer. On the other side of the ball, the Lakers' offense was untouchable, scoring at a jaw-dropping rate of 1.45 points per possession. Their passing was crisp, willing, and frequent, and it was a thing of beauty to watch. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Lakers' new dynamic duo were on fire in these two quarters, with Kobe scoring 27 on 12-15 shooting, and Andrew Bynum hitting 6-8 for 14 points, along with four rebounds.

Andrew Bynum. Offensively, it's safe to say the kid has arrived. He is so long, so soft of the hands, and so talented, that few teams can keep Bynum from getting his points these days, and at a very efficient rate. Tonight, however, his effort was there in every aspect of the game. He was moving his feet on defense, showing on pick and rolls and even challenging guards on the perimeter. He was altering shots, lunging after rebounds, and even scrambling after loose balls. Offensively, he wasn't forcing it, made good decisions, and knew when to kick the ball out, resulting in an open shot for a teammate or a re-post for himself. He has had better numbers, but it is with all-around efforts like these that he is at his best, and makes the Lakers that much harder to beat.

The Bench. They didn't mesmerize me, but they were good enough. Josh Powell remained steadily consistent, Jordan Farmar attacked the basket and remained under control, and Shannon Brown continued to be a spark of energy whose impact on the game was far more positive than his 4-12 shooting line would seem to indicate. Yes, I was watching in the fourth quarter ... see below.

Ron Artest, role player. Has he ever been less noticeable, or less noticed, in his entire career? At this point, he is flying so low under the radar, playing with such poise, and fitting so well into the system without drawing attention to himself, being a distraction, or wasting Laker possessions, that I don't feel like it fits to call him anything but his full name, at this point. No Crazy Pills, no Tru Warier, not even Ron Ron. When you forget he's there, he's just Ron Artest. And it's a very good thing.

Pau Gasol, hopeful. The Spaniard has been very vocal about his frustration with his injury, and has shown a rare willingness to express some pretty serious negativity regarding it to the press. The fact that during the third/fourth quarter interview, he was hopeful and positive, and seemed to think it very possible that he could be back by Thursday, was encouraging to me. Also, Phil Jackson was tickled pink not to have to do said third/fourth quarter interview.


Things I Didn't Like

 

The First Quarter. The second and third quarters were a relief, because the first was continued frustration. Non-existent defense, sloppiness on offense, overall lack of effort and interest, and general bobbleheadedness. The Lake Show was discombobulated and distracted in the first quarter, and a good team would have put us in a pretty decent early hole.

Pau Gasol choosing the wrong CSI. I'm all about Gasol branching out. The dude's a scholar and a philosopher, and was studying to be a doctor before he decided to go pro ball. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he can act, and I wish him the best of luck. And since I just like the guy so damn much, if he does act, I'm probably going to want to see it. Which now poses a problem, since watching CSI: Miami is against my religion. Seriously, Pau?


Thing I Hated

 

Staples Center Boo-ing Kwame Brown. Disappointing doesn't say it. Appalling is closer. Way to stay classy, Los Angeles.


Thing I Didn't Care About

 

The Fourth Quarter. Perhaps you're upset about the end-of-game lapse. You wanted the bench to come in and hold the 25-point lead. You wanted a good, old fashioned blowout. The fact that the Pistons cut the lead from 25 to eight, before finally losing by 13, really frustrates you, and you can't see how I could list the bench as a positive.

Frankly, I could care less whether we win by 13 or 25. I fully expect that a team up 25 in the fourth is going to let up a bit, play with less intensity, and thereby let the other team back in a bit. Let's be honest, a 25-point fourth quarter comeback is virtually impossible — consider, for example, that between the two teams, only three times (out of eight) did a team score more than 25 total quarter points. 25 more than your opponent in a single quarter? Not happening. So yeah, a team up 25 in the fourth quarter relaxes a bit, and the other team gets back in it a bit. The game was never in danger, so I couldn't care less.


Thing I'd Like To Leave You With

 

Clearly, this season is still a process. If you honestly thought the Lakers could win 70 games, you didn't consider that this team still has many lessons left to learn — and to Phil Jackson, the regular season is for learning those lessons, not for chasing meaningless records. Because there are still lessons left to be learned, there will be ups and downs. The weekend was a down, and a bit discouraging. As of this moment, we're back on the up. No, all problems are not fixed, and this team is not ready to win a championship yet. But we're seeing very good potential from them, and an ability to understand their own problems, along with a willingness and ability to address and resolve them. While not enough to inspire entitlement arrogance supreme confidence, it is certainly an encouraging indication.