I've said it before but it bears repeating. More than a few NBA teams don't have one 7 footer to play with, and most have no more than one. So, for the Lakers to play again missing two 7 foot players in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum should be considered a tough task akin to Boston playing a game without defense or Phoenix playing a game without quick shots. The Lakers are taller than your NBA team, and they use that height to beat you. And yet, the Lakers were forced once again to find another way to win, as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol missed their 2nd consecutive game together (Pau has yet to play this young season). The result? Their 2nd consecutive annihilation of an opponent, this time the New Orleans Hornets, 104-88. Anybody telling you the last two Laker wins aren't impressive needs to check their bias or their ego at the door. The Lakers often beat people with superior height, because their normal starting unit is just so much taller than yours. To not be able to play that way, through injury, is to have your biggest advantage taken away from you, and most teams would not respond well to it. Through Kobe Bryant and some pleasantly surprising bench play, the Lakers have managed to look even better without Gasol and Bynum. And if Phil Jackson is to be believed, the Lakers playing short (handed) might be a thing of the past. All in all, not a bad night for Purple and Gold lovers.
Let's start, as this team does, with Kobe Bryant. His play in the first half of last night's game was as spectacular as I've ever seen him. Josh wrote about how wonderful Kobe has been playing, especially in the post. When I initially read the piece, I have to admit I was skeptical. Too small of a sample size, yes, but also the wrong sample size. "Of course Kobe is going to look to work teams in the post if nobody else is in there", I said. Well, last night's game converted me both to Josh's way of thinking, and to Kobe's. See, Kobe isn't interested in ceding the post to his taller compatriots. Turns out he likes it down there. And when it allows him to have lines like 10-16 for 26 pts in 19 minutes, as he did in the first half against the Hornets, who can blame him? I've seen Kobe play in the post before, I've seen him play well in the post before, but I've never before seen him be so automatic from the post that it forced the other team to completely change the way they play defense to avoid Kobe scoring 50. But the Hornets were forced to double team Kobe AS the ball was being floated down to him in the post. If they responded any less quickly, Kobe would already have a (made) shot going up before the double team could get there. Surprising absolutely no one, this extremely quick double team allowed Kobe to simply feed his 'mates for a ton of open shots in the 2nd half, and the Lakers won going away. If those double teams hadn't have come, Kobe would have scored 50, on 60% shooting, and the Lakers would have won going away. That's the conundrum that posting Kobe puts teams in, and its not a riddle that can be easily solved. Which is why, even when Bynum and Gasol come back, Kobe will still go down to the block a fair amount of the time. You don't stop using the goose that lays the biggest golden eggs, just because you've got other geese who lay golden eggs as well. What you do is have golden eggs. Kobe Bryant eats 6 golden eggs for breakfast, raw, just because he can.
But it's not just Kobe. The past two games have been great for Kobe, but they have also been great for a unit as much maligned in this space as Kobe has been lauded. I'm speaking of the bench, of course. So far this year, the bench has been this team's Achilles heel, except that it's been so bad that a heel isn't big enough of a weakness. The bench has been the team's Achilles right leg. Earlier this week, the Lakers beat the Thunder with 6 bench points. SIX!!! You could put the bench out there with blindfolds on and they should be able to get more than 6 points. It was truly a deplorable effort. But we're not talking about deplorable efforts today. We're talking about great efforts. We're talking about 46 points off the bench. We're talking about no starter playing more than 34 minutes, because the bench came in and pushed the lead even further. Thanks to the past two games, the Lakers bench has been upgraded back to being inconsistent. If it's tough to see inconsistent as a compliment, let me help you out. Inconsistent means capable of greatness, but failing to deliver it on a regular basis. Early last week, nobody thought the Lakers bench was even capable of getting through a game without soiling themselves. They were extremely consistent, consistently terrible. With a couple of very solid efforts under their belts (when the Lakers needed them most, I might add) the bench is back to being an inconsistent one, instead of just a shitty one.
And while we're handing out praise, specific mention needs to go to Shannon Brown and Luke Walton. While the game still actually mattered, both players were absolutely money. Shannon didn't score a point in the first half, but he ended up with 15, courtesy of some early run in the 3rd quarter because of foul trouble for Derek Fisher. Able to run with the starters, Brown simply made all the open shots that he found. And, with NO doing their massive double team thing, there were plenty of open shots. Walton was just as on target, making 4-7, and 3-5 from behind the arc. The percentages alone don't do Walton justice tonight, because he was hitting shots that he doesn't even normally take. Shots where his defender was like "Pshhh, you're Luke Walton, I'll give you that." The type of shots that Luke has to hit so that his man is forced to guard him closely enough for Luke to sneak by (For most players, it's blow by, but we know Luke better than that).
And he may not have actually been a member of the bench, pressed into starting service by the injuries to his 7 foot brethren, but DJ Mbenga has been awesome in the last two games. Many have remarked that the Lakers may actually be a better team with DJ out there because he plays defense like he's not going to get back into the game. That he does so because it's true is irrelevant. 4 blocks/game for the man in the middle in the last two, and tonight he sweetened that pot with a double double, 10 points and 12 boards.
Now the Lakers have 3 days off, and might come back from that rest period whole. If Gasol and Bynum return from their injuries to full active duty, and the bench actually keeps up their sterling play, we might actually see the "dominant" team that was expected at the beginning of the season. While it might be nice, what it definitely isn't is necessary. For all the Lakers struggles the past couple weeks, they sit with as good a record as anybody in the league, except those who have played more games. They've had to finagle their way to a couple of victories in less than stellar form, but all teams go through bouts of less than stellar form. The Lakers have already dealt with injuries galore, and responded the way they always seem to. With more victories.