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Lakers 124, Grizzlies 105: The Champs Are Spitting Fire

Remember when the Lakers used to struggle against the NBA's lesser teams? A couple seasons ago, lottery-dwellers like the Memphis Grizzlies would come to town and the Lakers would spend a good part of the night sleepwalking. Maybe they'd pull it out late - sometimes they wouldn't - but either way, they didn't always take a businesslike approach to their less-than-marquee opponents.

Those days appear to be over. After hammering the Golden State Warriors on Sunday in a game that saw them race out to a 20-point first quarter lead, the Lakers again tonight came out in high-level beast mode. They hung 73 first-half points on the Grizzlies en route to a 124 to 105 rout. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom maintained their All-Star forms, and the Laker bench again demonstrated how it's transformed from a major weakness into a decisive strength. The victory pushes the Lake Show's record to a perfect 4-0 as they head to Sacramento to complete their first back-to-back of the season tomorrow.

The Grizzlies were without the injured Zach Randolph, but he would've made the final score only a bit more respectable. Memphis just had no shot at stopping the Laker offense. Kobe, Pau and Lamar have the attack running oh-so-smoothly right now. The floor spacing is beautiful, players are making "purposeful cuts" (as Phil Jackson would put it), and the passing is sharp and creative. The Lakers are killing teams on the offensive glass and, most shocking of all after last season, the three-point bombs are raining down. For the game, the purple and gold scored 1.29 points per possession after a ridiculous 1.62 PPP blitzkrieg in the first half.

Kobe took the wheel of the offense in this one. From the opening jump, he was determined to go at O.J. Mayo, who always draws the assignment of guarding the Black Mamba but seems pretty ill-equipped for the task. Initially Kobe worked on O.J. from the post with spin moves and fadeaways. In the second quarter, he moved outside and got the three-balls dropping, then just for fun he went to the dribble-drive to pick up some freebies. All of Kobe's 23 points came in the first half. He needed only 17 shots (including free-throw possessions) to get that total. It's absurd to keep talking about his knee anymore: Kobe looks stronger and more in control than at any point last season.

Battling his brother Marc head-to-head for much of the game, Pau had his fourth straight big stat line to start the campaign. Twenty-one points (on 17 shots), 13 rebounds and five assists for the man Memphis helpfully traded to L.A. a few years back. As for Lamar, his game these days is just wonderfully fluid and fun to watch. He's moving off the ball and has been rewarded with more than a few of Pau's dimes, and he's collecting a few of his own as well, with six assists on the night. And how does three of four from long distance strike you? Lamar is blazing from behind the arc, having made six of his eight longball attempts this year.

Against this ferocious assault the Grizzlies had no hope. They fought hard, it seemed, but they don't have the defensive personnel or scheme to hold up against the Laker attack, and their bench is just terrible. Rudy Gay (30 points) shot the ball well, Marc Gasol battled on the boards, and Mike Conley, he of the enthusiastically mocked contract extension, had a productive outing with 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds, but no one else did anything of note. This game was effectively decided shortly into the second period, when a great burst of play by Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake pushed the lead up to 20.

Those three reserves continue to impress. Blake's steady playmaking and outside shooting are what the Laker second unit has needed for years. Barnes is living up to his rep as a max-energy rebounding dervish. But Shannon is the most surprising revelation of the three. He scored 13 points on a mere seven shots tonight, which is fantastic, but you had to watch him to see how much his game has progressed from last season. His handles are much tighter and he has a far more developed sense of where to go with the ball. That the bench guys are playing so well has the benefit of allowing Phil to rest the starters. Lamar was the only member of the starting five to play more than 30 minutes tonight.

So the new season is off to a roaring start. The obvious and very legitimate caveat involves the level of competition, as it's very possible none of the four teams the Lakers have faced so far will end up in the playoffs. The gaudy stats the offense is throwing up will no doubt come down to earth at some point. The last three opponents in particular - Phoenix, Golden State and Memphis - are likely to be among the worst defenses in the league. Still, it's delightful seeing the Lakers work with an efficiency and polish that was rarely in evidence last year. As we know from seasons past, domination of inferior opponents isn't something we can take for granted.











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