The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks on the road last night. It was a very competitive game, the ending was amazing (again), and though it took an extra 5 minutes, the Lakers escaped with a good win, 107-106. The victory was all the more improbable because of poor showings from a good chunk of the team. I guess you can win games 2 v. 5 in this league, if you have the right 2. The Lakers have the right 2.
What a game. Forget, for a second, how it ended. Forget the latest entry in the book of Kobe Bryant's Greatness, Volume Infinity. This game had almost everything you could ask for. It was extremely competitive throughout. The Lakers largest lead was 8, but that lead was short lived. The Bucks largest lead was 6, and it came with 1:25 left in a game they ended up losing. The rest of the time, you were left with two tough defensive teams who gave everything they had to try to win the game. There were times when the action was sloppy, and neither team shot the ball particularly well, but the intensity of the game was high throughout.
The Lakers should be thankful for this victory, but they should also be proud of it. Some have said that a 1 pt win on a buzzer beater in OT against a middling team is not a good victory. I disagree. The Bucks record is not great, but they fall into the familiar pattern of being lights out at home and terrible on the road. They are 2-8 in road games, 8-4 (now) in home games. The only teams they've lost to at home were Dallas, Boston, and Cleveland. They have wins over Denver and (injury depleted) Portland. And the Lakers were the first team to deal with Michael Redd playing like, well, Michael Redd. 25 points off the bench for Redd, and only a bunch of missed shots late kept it from being an efficient 25 poitns. On the 2nd night of a back to back, the effort the Lakers put into this game was something worthy of pride. Specifically, the efforts of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Kobe and Pau were spectacular in a way that isn't normally possible for two players on the same team. Both played more minutes than you normally can in an NBA game, 49 for Pau and 50 for Kobe. They combined for 60% of the team's points, 70% of the team's rebounds, and 44% of the team's assists. Kobe's line: 39 pts on 28 shots, 12-12 from the FT line, 7 rebounds, 4 assists. 7 turnovers, but c'mon, the dude has a broken finger in his dominant hand. Pau's line might have been more impressive: 26 pts on 15 shots, 22 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks. Just monsterous. When the game's greatest player scores 39 points and hits a buzzer beater, but you are still stealing some of his attention, it just goes to show how good Pau Gasol is becoming.
We'll have more on Kobe later in the day, but allow me to focus in on Pau. At this point, where does he get ranked? Is he a top 10 player in the league right now? Top 5? Top 3? Is he the best big man in the league? Throughout his career, he's always been good. Throughout his time with the Lakers, he's always been a star. But his overall game continues to improve by leaps and bounds that should not be possible for a guy with as much experience and success as he's had. Since coming back this season, he's become an absolute monster on the boards. Basketball-Reference lists Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah as the league leaders in rebounds per game at 12.7 and 12.1 per contest, respectively. Gasol is not on the list because he has not yet played enough games to qualify. His season average: 12.7.
Pau's also shown that his defensive improvement in last year's playoffs, specifically the Finals, is no fluke. His blocks per game is an unspectacular 1.5, the same as the much maligned Andrew Bynum. But there is no question that, since his return, the Lakers team defense has been extremely formidable. And he does a great job of playing defense without fouling, with only 2.1 fouls per game.
Combine the beastly rebounding and stellar defense with the biggest big man skill set in the game offensively, and you've got a strong case that Pau is the best big in the league. Tim Duncan is still amazing, Howard is still the most intimidating and powerful speciman down low, and Chris Bosh is part of the conversation as well. But, for my money, Pau has improved more than Howard over the last two years, despite the fact that Howard is younger and thus should be improving more, and has a legitimate place in the conversation of top big men, and top overall players, in the league.
Oh, and the Lakers have that other guy who's pretty good, too. With Kobe and Pau playing at the level they are playing at, the Lakers have entered into the familiar territory of possibly having the best big and the best perimeter player playing on the same team. This hasn't happened in the NBA since, well, the last time that Kobe was part of that combo with one Shaquille O'neal. That team won three straight championships. This team, with a supporting cast that far outstrips the previous dynasty in terms of talent, is capable of being much better. That, and this team is free of the Alpha Dog animosity that ruined the first go around. That's why you see people across the league talking about how screwed everyone else is. Kelly Dwyer is saying it. Matt Moore is saying it. Hell, Bill freaking Simmons is saying it.
Some other game notes
- Ah yes, the elephant in the room. The Lakers were given an absolute gift in the form of an and 1 while down 4 and under a minute to play in overtime. Kobe spun into the lane, hit a stationary defender blindly, and took another step before hitting a shot off the glass. After confering about the call for 5 seconds or so, the refs called a block, and even more egregiously counted the basket. It was a doubly bad call. It should have been a charge (a no call would have been more forgiveable than a blocking foul), and once they decided it was a block instead of a charge, the basket still shouldn't have counted because Kobe travelled after the "foul" but before the shot. It was wrong all the way around. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of NBA referees, from "They are the best refs in the world, tough sport to call" to "the refs suck and give superstar calls, but what can you do" to full conspiracy "The NBA is rigged" mode, everyone got evidence in favor of their argument last night. I'm not going to break out the typical responses, the "don't put yourself in that position", "one call doesn't change the game, there were lots of bad calls both ways", "if you made your own free throws" answers that normally come out of the camp who got the call in their favor. The bad call was a bad call. It probably did affect the outcome of the game directly. If Bucks fans decide to focus on that and feel cheated today, I can't blame them.
- The Lakers really need to fix their outside shooting. In the past few games, they've shot horribly from outside, continued with last night's 4-16 performance. Ron Artest has been the guy missing a lot of these shots, but last night he was a respectable 2-5. This time, the problem was across the board, with lots of players getting into the act of missing from deep. And many of these shots aren't bad shots. The Triangle is an offense that requires decent outside shooting to keep the lane from getting clogged, so this is an aspect that needs to be improved, not avoided.
- Andrew Bynum is in a full on slump. Another bad game in a string of bad games for AB. Tonight he was plagued by foul trouble, so it is a bit more forgiveable. But he once again had only 3 boards in 24 minutes, he picked up 5 fouls in 24 minutes, and unlike most other games, he didn't even find a rhythm on offense, scoring only 8 points. It could be that there's just no way to fully integrate the greatness of Pau and Bynum together, but there's no doubt that he's struggled as Pau has looked incredible the past few games.