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Lakers 120, Raptors 110: Change Personified

Quick question: if, at any point last season, I told you Phil Jackson would play his bench unit for a period of roughly 12 minutes spanning the latter half of the third and early fourth quarters, in a game far from decided where the opponent was evidently playing with superlative effort, how high would you rank the Lakers' chances of winning? 25%? 30%? How high would you rate the bench's chances of not only holding their ground, but expanding the lead and keeping it steady? We have to be moving into the single-figures here, don't we?

Well say hello to the Killer B's, with special guest Andrew Bynum. From the 4:37 mark of the third to around that point in the fourth, the bench took a five-point lead that the starters were valiantly doing all within their power to lose, showing off an impressive variety of turnovers and amateur offense in the face of Toronto's zone defense, and expanded it into a nine-point lead with 4:37 to go in the fourth (amazing symmetry - I actually double-checked that to make sure it wasn't a typo) before bringing Kobe, Fish and Pau back in to team up with Barnes and the earlier-inserted Odom, expanding the lead out to double-digits.

Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake - hell, even Luke Walton got in on the fact (provided you ignore his nasty four turnovers) - combined to score nearly half the Lakers' total points, as Wondah mentioned yesterday, and played with an energy that matched that of the Raptors, allowing the Lakers' superior talent to win out after it seemed clear the Laker starters wanted no part of the Raptors' hustle and effort.

Not to say the starters played a terrible game, in themselves. Aside from a few stretches where the Raptors' defense forced several consecutive turnovers, the Lakers' superior talent and size meant they had no problem scoring, and the only Laker starter with a bad shooting night was Derek Fisher. The issue, initially at least, was on the other end of the floor. Defensively, the Lakers managed to give up 34 points in the first quarter, one of their highest, if not the highest, first quarter total they've allowed an opponent to pile up all season. To start the second, the bench locked down on defense, forcing Toronto to go 1 for 9, whilst converting at 50% themselves for the first five minutes of the period, making their presence felt with quick hands, good defense and solid offensive movement. The starters came on soon after to find the Lakers leading by two after a 14-6 run by the bench in the first half of the second, and they expanded this lead out to eight at the half through solid halfcourt offensive execution.

The starters were rather lackadaisical in the third, a fact camouflaged only by Kobe Bryant's offensive performance (which in itself was overshadowed by his nonexistent defense on his matchup, DeMar DeRozan), and though the lead ballooned out to 15 by a Kobe jumper, it soon shrunk back down to five due to a series of perimeter jumpers characterised by a complete lack of forays in the paint leading to transition opportunities on the other end, along with countless needless turnovers borne of bad decision-making and lazy passing.

And that's when the aforementioned change kicked in - Phil Jackson did something that if he had thought of it last year the majority of us would doubtless let loose frustrated obscenities and swear he was getting senile: he brought in the bench.

Anyone who watched this time last year likely cringed at the very notion of that last phrase, but it's a new year and nothing highlighted that more effectively than the turnaround the bench brought with them. Starting off with a shot-clock-beating, cool and collected three by Shannon Brown (find a single buzzer-beating three hit with such coolness by Shannon before this season, and I'll owe you a cookie), and followed by strong defense and several trips to the line, the bench held Toronto off, expanding the lead to seven by the end of the quarter and swinging the momentum in the process.

In the fourth the bench continued this process, playing hustle defense and inside-out offense, getting into the paint or to the line nearly every possession, bringing the lead back to 13 before Toronto called timeout. The Lakers then struggled to score for a stretch but played solid defense on Toronto and kept them at bay, holding a nine-point lead when the starters were subbed back in to put this one in the books.

The bench truly did outplay the starters in this game. Not only did they run the offense with more ball movement and play defense with more effort, they contributed 48% of the Lakers' points on the night on 41% of available minutes, portraying a more efficient offensive performance than the starters. And their defense to start the second and close the third was far better than the starters played at any point in the contest, particularly when they only allowed the Raptors six points in the first six minutes of the second.

This was a very well rounded output from the Lakers, with six players in double figures and no player who saw the court scoring fewer than six points. Determining the Lakers' MVP on the night is a tough affair, but I would be inclined to give that award to either Andrew Bynum or Shannon Brown. Shannon put on a clinic tonight, showing all the newly improved facets of his game, often in highlight from - from the shot-clock beating three-pointer to his wicked crossover and layup exhibiting superior handles and body-control that were simply nonexistent last year. And he contributed all this well within the flow of the offense, only forcing one semi-transition jumper, if my memory serves me correctly.

Bynum was also extremely impressive. His touch seems to be returning, displayed on some solid baby hooks, but more worrying is the fact that he seems to be getting extremely little lift at the moment, not even getting up on several open dunks where he was fouled but could have easily forced a three-point-play, as he was wont to do last season when healthy. Hopefully his jumping ability comes back with time, and his vertical isn't permanently lowered, as it was after his initial knee injury. Despite this lack of vertical and still-below-100% shooting touch, Bynum played exceptionally well tonight, albeit against an extremely undersized frontline. Why? His size. He's always been extremely long and tall, but the skinny 18-year-old rookie Bynum is barely recognisable when looking at this ripped mamma-jamma currently donning the #17 for Los Angeles. Bynum, quite frankly, is probably the biggest center in the league playing significant minutes asides from Dwight and Shaq, and his shooting touch and skillset surpass both of those players at this point in their respective careers. As the CSN commentator stated, Bynum is the key to whether or not the Lakers threepeat - he's transformed from the talented boy with potential to a true big man with deep playoff experience and legitimate size; and when healthy has no excuse for not being a clear-cut top-two center in the league.

He's been using his new size and strength to great effect, his seals have been exceptional this season, either gaining him deep post position or pinning his smaller defender out of the way of the basket. Currently, Bynum's relative lack of lift and mobility have resulted in his either struggling to catch the ball on the move and convert effectively, or his teammates not passing to him in favour of more effective options. But as the season goes on and Bynum returns to 100% effectiveness, those seals will result in either easy baskets for Bynum or double-teams leading to open shots elsewhere. Bynum has shown flashes of this in previous games, but he asserted himself in gaining position far more consistently yesterday, whereas previously he was wont to get lost within the offense, and this is a doubtless beneficial sign, indicative of him better gaining his bearings on the court during game action. With two months to go until the All Star game, maybe Bynum will indeed start for the West.

Kobe's jumper didn't seem to be falling yesterday. It will likely take him a few days to adjust to the soreness in his pinky, and as a result he missed a couple of open jumpers he'd normally drill, but his performance as a whole was definitely pleasing on the offensive side of the court, with 20 points on only 16 'Dex' shots, three rebounds, four assists and two turnovers in an extraordinarily low (considering how long this game was in doubt) 28 minutes, a testament to how well equipped and deep this Laker team is (good for per-40 stats of 28.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.8 turnovers), on 50% from the field and 89% from the line. These numbers could have easily been expanded upon if Kobe decided to assert himself upon his return in the fourth, instead of simply going through the motions as a decoy, allowing his teammates to gain experience in closing out games whilst he did not take a single shot and didn't score until he drilled two free throws on a desperation foul by the Raptors to seal the game. Defensively, Kobe embarrassed himself in his And-1 style defense on DeMar DeRozan, but shit happens when you're closing off a December road trip in an 82-game season.

Pau played fine offensively, but gave up too many offensive boards to his far smaller opposition. And his dominance of the Raptors' frontline was to be expected, considering the largest of the Raptors' active rotation bigs was 6'10", 215-pound Ed Davis. Doubtless, the best part of Pau's stat-line was the '30 minutes played', a trend that will hopefully continue. Lamar had a very quiet game by his standards for this season. Ron Artest did nothing to embarrass himself in his 20 minutes of play. Derek Fisher had the very sort of game that can be expected of Derek Fisher in December, though he did rack up four steals.

Elsewhere on the bench Steve Blake played a solid but unspectacular game, highlighted by some timely threes, and Shannon played the type of game that has come to be expected of him this season. The pleasant surprises off the bench were Matt Barnes, who hit numerous timely jumpers and brought some much-needed energy at opportune moments on both ends of the floor, as well as notching a team-high nine boards in 28 minutes of play time, and Luke Walton, who showed through his steady play that he is still capable of being a rotation player in certain matchups,though his four turnovers serves to remind us he's not used to playing with many of his new bench compatriots.

This game was a likely loss last season, on the wrapping up of a seven-game road trip with a ridiculously early start time against a team known to match up well with the Lakers and play a style that can cause problems;, and the early play of the Laker starters certainly did nothing to dispel this theory. However, extended stretches of the game from the bench highlighted the improvement and progress of this Lakers team from one season to the next, and served as a testament to Mitch Kupchak's skills as General Manager. The bench is as effective, if not more so, than the Bench Mob of '08, but more consistent and playing a style that mirrors that of the starters, albeit with more effort. The downside to is that the bench is now older: the Lakers have only two rotation players under the age of 30, those players being Andrew Bynum and Shannon Brown. However, games like this highlight the continued development of the pair, instilling confidence in the Lakers' future.

The Lakers now face Milwaukee at home on Tuesday, followed by a three-day break preempting a Christmas Day matchup against some unknown team from the Eastern Conference. Let's see how long they can ride this (currently five game) winning streak.

PS: At this current rate, San Antonio are on-track to break the Bulls' '96 record of 72 regular season wins. LOL.

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