The Lakers' victory over the Thunder was about as straight-forward as it gets. If you watched the game, there's not much I can tell you about it that you don't already know. In fact, if you checked the box score, you could probably more or less figure this game out.
For those of you that didn't see the game (get League Pass, it's worth it!), we'll still recap the night's events. But at the end of the day, this was simply great basketball by the Lakers on both ends of the floor, and another glimpse at how good this team is at full strength.
Let's go down the list, shall we? Now, I know what you're thinking — this list has to start with Kobe. And it usually does, doesn't it? But not tonight. Kobe was the show, but the story of this game went beyond his heroics, mind-boggling as they were.
There were a few things not to like, but they were minimal and hardly worth focusing on, so let's just get them out of the way right now, shall we?
Pau Gasol struggled offensively, but he still managed 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, so it's hard to fault him. Some shots that he would usually hit rimmed out, and he struggled a bit with the physicality of the Thunder's bigs. I'm sure his physical condition has something to do with the latter, and he'll deal with that challenge easier when he's back in shape and has the physical endurance to fight back on the block for extended stretches. Still, his impact on the game can only be seen as positive. His passing means so much to this team, but beyond any of that, I can't describe it any better than to simply say that things seem so easy and effortless for the entire team with Gasol back on the court. It's impossible to articulate all the ways in which he has this effect on the team, but it's undeniable.
Lamar Odom and Ron Artest struggled with their shots as well, but they rebounded the ball, played solid defense, and still contributed to a very positive effort overall for the Lakers. Hard to complain. (Speaking of rebounding, it's worth pointing out that while no Lakers broke double digits, five different players had five or more boards.)
The only other thing I can think of to complain about is the Thunder block party. The Lakers blocked four shots, but they let the Thunder block them 15 times. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and Josh Powell each got blocked twice. It's certainly something I don't want to see happening any time soon — but given how well the rest of the game went, and how well the Lakers played on offense when they weren't being blocked, it is, once again, hard to complain.
On to the positives.
According to the commentary crew, Phil Jackson focused on two things with his team over the past few days: defense and turnovers. If this one game is any indication, the Lakers listen to their coach. The defense, for starters, was excellent last night, and it was probably the biggest factor in the Lakers' easy win.
Coming into the game, the Thunder were averaging 104.5 points per 100 possessions — or 1.05 points per possession. Last night, the Lakers held the Thunder to 0.90 points per possession, or an offensive rating of 90.2 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder shot 37% from the field, including 13% from three point range. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to shoot 13-36 from the field for 33 points.
This wasn't simply a case of the Thunder shooting poorly. The Lakers, as a unit, were dialed in and focused on defense, playing with energy and intensity. Having Gasol back in the lineup no doubt helps, as his defense in general is underrated, and his pick and roll defense in particular is something the Lakers really benefit from.
And then, of course, there's Ron Artest. Sidetrack with me for a brief moment, will you? We all know that Kobe is the most capable and lethal perimeter stopper in the league. When he feels the situation warrants it, nobody can shut down a perimeter scorer like #24. And in the past, whenever the Lakers have found themselves in a situation where that was particularly important, Kobe could be counted on to make the opposing perimeter scorer struggle. This year, it's different. This year, we're getting that every single night. Rather than on special occasions, it seems that in every single game, the Joe Johnsons, Luol Dengs, Kevin Durants, Trevor Arizas, David Wests, and on and on, find themselves facing Ron Artest. Almost without exception, the result is a tough night and a bad box score line for said perimeter star. That's what Ron Artest brings to this team.
That leaves Kobe to guard the lesser perimeter threats, and on nights like tonight, when not only Artest but the entire Lakers team is dialed in defensively, that's bad news for the visitors. Tonight, even Fisher played well defensively, and as a group, this team showed what they can do on the "other" end of the court, once again reminding the league of why they're the team to beat — because no other team in the league can be as good as the Lakers can be on both ends of the court.
Replay the first 12 games of the season in your mind, and you can probably remember more than one that the Lakers should have won much more convincingly than they did, but instead, they allowed their opponents to stay close with sloppy plays and lots of turnovers, leading to wasted possessions for the Lakers and easy ones for their opponents. This was the other thing that Phil Jackson asked his team to focus on, and here also the guys in purple and gold showed themselves to be coachable.
Overall, the Lakers limited themselves to only three turnovers in the first half — by which time, to be honest, this game was already decided — and nine overall. On the other hand, their strong defense (and some simple confusion on the part of the Thunder) resulted in 19 turnovers for OKC, allowing the Lakers to pad the lead rather than letting inferior opponents back in.
Sometimes, Phil Jackson's coaching is downright puzzling. In this case, it's as brilliant as it is simple: limit turnovers and play good, tough defense, and the Lakers can win any game. The rest will fall into place if they will continue to play well in these two areas.
We've criticized PJ a good deal for his obscene rotations. Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga — two guys that never heard the word "pass" and yet aren't that efficient as scorers — don't belong on the court together, especially with Adam Morrison. In fact, at this point, the whole idea of swapping entire units, bench mob for starters, doesn't seem like a good idea, as the bench players as a unit haven't proven that they can handle themselves without some hand-holding for the starters.
Over the last couple of games, I've been extremely pleased with Jackson's rotations. Not counting garbage time, Phil seems to have moved more towards keeping a mixture of starters and bench players on the floor at all times. At the very least, he keeps two starters on the floor with three bench players, and this move has really stabilized the bench's production, and as a result, the subs aren't giving up big leads as routinely as they usually do. PJ has also shortened his bench rotation, with guys like Sasha Vujabric, Ammo, and even Josh Powell seeing fewer minutes, while Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown (and of course super-sub Lamar Odom) take most of the minutes off the bench. Both players are playing very well recently, and seem to do better in a lineup that feels only a step removed from the starting lineup, rather than one composed almost entirely of subs.
Our own C.A. Clark petitioned in the preseason for a smaller backcourt lineup, putting both Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar on the court at the same time, and he has gotten his wish quite a bit this year. So far, I have to say that I like the results, as those two on the court with three of the Lakers five best players (Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Artest) have done some really positive things.
Two thumbs up to Phil for bringing those crazy lineups under control and finding ways to provide more stability in the relief rotation.
Nights like tonight are why I don't see Pau Gasol's return being a problem for Bynum. Offensively, the kid has the ability to play so efficiently that he doesn't need to demand 25 shots, like Shaq of old, to get his points. Last night: 25 points on only eleven shots (9-11 from the field), nine rebounds, and two blocks — all in only 28 minutes. And of course, my favorite box score stat of all: 7-7 from the free throw line.
And don't think that Bynum's decreased minutes are a result of Gasol's return to the lineup. Andrew played those 28:37 in the first 35:24, sitting down before the third quarter ended and never returning, simply because the Lakers never needed him. In fact, the Lakers' victory was so sound, Artest and Derek Fisher joined Bynum in not playing the fourth quarter, and even Kobe only played until 8:58 remained in the game.
Meanwhile, Bynum's skill set is just amazing at this point, for a kid of his age and experience. Think back to the beginning of 2007-08, when Bynum first began to show flashes of reaching his potential as a post presence for the Lakers. Almost everything he did came on lobs and as a result of attention paid to other Lakers; he didn't have moves to speak of. Now, he's got an entire array of them. His length and his soft touch make it so easy for him to simply shoot over his man, and at only 22 years old, his drop hook is becoming deadly. For a kid who barely played in high school and skipped college, at 22 years of age, his skill set is scary good.
The amazing thing about last night is that it wasn't any kind of dominant performance. Andrew wasn't on a hot streak, he wasn't hitting crazy shots. He wasn't a man possessed. He was simply showing the kind of efficient scoring that he could be capable of delivering on a regular basis — and on a team as thoroughly talented as these Lakers are, with more scorers to draw attention away from Bynum than you can count, he's likely to get plenty of opportunities to put on performances like tonight. Easy, effortless, no-big-deal dominance.
Unlike Bynum, for Kobe Bryant this was one of those dominant, out-of-his-mind unstoppable performances. There was the over the backboard horse shot in the first quarter, where he should have gotten a foul call but mysteriously didn't. There was that up-and-under reverse, which started with Kobe posting up and then spinning off his defender so hard the guy was left staring at (and almost falling onto) empty hardwood in front of him. There was the left-handed buzzer beater, the one he grabbed and tossed up while already in the air. There was the baseline fader that he heaved up while flying out of bounds (a shot he had no business taking, and definitely no business making). There was the breakaway layup that he squeaked in there to start the second half, and I have no idea how he got it past the attempted block.
It was just one of those nights for Kobe. Circus shots, all of which went in. Along the way, he added seven assists, six rebounds, and a pair of steals, and played solid perimeter defense.
At the end of the day, this was a game that you loved to see because of the defense, the lack of turnovers, and the overall performance by the Lakers at both ends of the court. Their dominance from start to finish was a positive sign, a welcome change from the team that started the season by routinely building leads, giving them away, and then squeaking out close wins. (We'll again overlook the near failure to score in the last 5 minutes, as the victory was already so complete that Phil put in his "I don't give a shit if we score even one more bucket" lineup.)
But while you love this game for all the improvement you see in the Lakers — their mindset, their commitment at both ends of the floor — you're going to save it, put it in your library, and re-watch it from time to time because of Kobe. Because this was one of those games. Shots like the ones he hit tonight happen once in a blue moon. He did it four or five times in a single game.
The next time the Lakers get three or four days off between games, and you're bored out of your mind, cue up this game and watch Kobe do his thing.