File this game under "If we have to play the game, I guess we might as well win." The Lakers beat the Bulls 96-87 and when you consider the Lakers team, the Bulls team, and the amount of effort displayed by both, that's about right. The difference in talent between these two teams is vast, both for the players on the court and the minds on the bench, and once Chicago's shooting came back down to hell (since their normal shooting is way worse than the average), that talent gap was enough that the Lakers won comfortably despite being mildy outworked throughout.
I'll admit, I was nervous about this game in the 1st quarter. The Bulls jumped out to a 14-4 lead, and they were hitting outside shots from all over the place (wide open shots, mind you), but that wasn't what made me nervous. What made me nervous was how the Lakers came back from that defecit in the first quarter, with a mini-explosion from Kobe. Kobe came out to prove that he was still Kobe (more on this later), and that extra shooting practice pays off, by going 8-12 in the first quarter en route to 20 points, on mostly difficult shots. At least, they're difficult for most people.
I certainly don't want to imply that Kobe going off like that is a bad thing. Too many people make that argument without understanding the reasons why they should be making that argument. I love watching Kobe explode. Despite its regularity, seeing an explosion like that continues to remain as special and impressive as the first time you saw it. And it is most definitely beneficial to the team. As previously mentioned, the Lakers were down 10 to start the quarter, and ended the quarter tied with the Bulls at 31. He brought the Lakers back and made sure that the game on the road didn't get out of hand. Again, a Kobe explosion is a good thing. Unless its in the first quarter.
When Kobe has an explosion like this in the 4th quarter, that's ballgame, Lakers win. When he does it in the 2nd, or the 3rd, the result is usually the same. But when Kobe goes off in the 1st, the result often ends up being more negative than positive for the team by game's end. Not because Kobe is a selfish gunner. Not because an explosion indicates he doesn't want to play within the team dynamic. These reasons make no sense, because when he explodes, Kobe is quite clearly the best option on offense. No one can prevent him from getting his shots up, and if all those shots are falling, it would be stupid for the offense to go anywhere else.
No, the issue with a 1st quarter explosion is that it sets a precedent for the offense that can not, and should not, be maintained. When (sorry, make that if) Kobe cools off, the offense struggles to get back to normal. In the past, Kobe struggled as much as anyone to adjust his play once the shots stopped falling. Last night was a perfect example of how that is no longer the case, as Kobe ended up with "only" 26 shots after putting up 12 in the 1st. Now, the struggle is entirely with the rest of the team. Whenever Kobe goes off to start the game, his teammates mentally check out somewhat. Their thought process is something along the lines of "Kobe's got this". And, to a certain extent, that's exactly what happened last night. After the 1st quarter, the Lakers offense was not good at all. Outside of anything Shannon Brown did (often times, that was bad offense as well, but it was successful), and quite a few nice passing exchanges between Gasol and Odom, the Lakers O was at its inefficient worst. Lots of bad three pointers, lots of possessions that didn't even sniff the post. The Bulls play good D, but not good enough to hold the Lakers to such poor performance in the final 3/4 of the game. Hate to give the Ron Haters any ammunition, but Artest was the main culprit tonight. To be fair, this is the first time he's experienced the Kobe Bryant mini-explosion phenomenon, or at least the first time he's experienced it as a teammate. We'll give him a pass.
Luckily for the Lakers, even when their offense is at it's worst, it is still better than what Chicago puts out there most of the time. After a 1st quarter that saw the Bulls shoot lights out from 20 feet, with Brad Miller and Kurt Hinrich each making a ton of pretty open shots, the Bulls shot terribly the rest of the way, en route to putting up 56 points in the last 3 quarters. Where Chicago's defense gets credit for helping L.A. struggle, so to does the Lakers defense get credit for helping Chicago struggle. And, as KD mentioned in BtB, maybe that's the difference between this Lakers team and previous versions. A previous version might have lost this game due to "Kobe explodes in the 1st" syndrome. This team is good enough defensively to survive it.
On to some smaller notes
- The Lakers effort overall was probably a C+/B-. The rebounding was inexcusable, and Joakim Noah probably worked harder than all three of our bigs combined tonight. But there is no such thing as a poor effort that included good defense, so it averaged out. This certainly wasn't the Honor Roll Lakers, but it wasn't Game 4 v. Houston either.
- Big ups to the bench, who provided quite a bit of spark. Shannon Brown dusted off his shot and played well for the first time in quite a bit. Odom was probably the most successful offensive player on the team besides Kobe, making lots of the strong cuts which have been so lacking in his game lately. And Farmar didn't stand out, but that can be as positive as it can be negative. The 1.5 unit was responsible for pulling away enough to seal the victory, which has to be considered a great development on the road.
- Big downs to the centers. Bynum only played 25 minutes, and not due to foul trouble. He was ineffective on the boards, and struggled a bit with the Bulls good interior defense. The Bulls are one of the few teams that actually have the size to match up with L.A. inside, and neither Bynum nor Gasol seemed ready to deal with that last night. But at least Gasol rebounded. Bynum pulled down only 3.
- I'm ready to proclaim myself absolutely correct about whether or not it was ok for Kobe to play against Utah last Saturday. Kobe was certainly no worse for the wear, playing with good energy and with far less protection around his "fractured" finger, both indications that his game against Utah did not set him back in any way, health wise. So, unless you honestly think that more Machine would have given the Lakers a better chance to win, the decision to play Kobe seems to have been the right one on all counts, despite the result.
- I really want to know what Joakim Noah had to say to Phil Jackson at the end of the game. Noah went over and launched into an explanation of his college thesis to PJ, speaking non-stop for what must have been 45 seconds to a minute, and PJ definitely had a glazed over look by the end, definitely thinking "Is he still talking?".