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Lakers 109, Knicks 87: Bynum Ascending

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More and more, Laker games are becoming contests of brute power. The return of Andrew Bynum to his pre-injury form, coupled with the chastening effects of those three blowout losses at the end of December, appears to have concentrated the champs' minds and inculcated them with an appreciation for their own competitive strengths. These lie primarily, of course, in the size and talent of their frontline. Game by game, the Lakers are increasingly focused on getting the ball to their big men, and when they execute this approach correctly, few teams have the resources to weather the assault. None of those teams are the New York Knicks, who competed gamely tonight at Staples Center but ultimately bowed to the purp and yellow, 109 to 87.

The Lakers scored 1.11 points per possession this evening, the fourth straight game in which their points per trip have exceeded 1.10. The production arose from consistent and occasionally dominant inside play from Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the three of whom combined for 51 points, 39 rebounds, 10 assists and six blocks. Bynum especially looked excellent. Until he got tossed early in the fourth quarter by a trigger-happy Leon Wood, Drew worked over Amare Stoudemire on both ends of the floor and no doubt made the Knicks power forward long for the days when he had a Robin Lopez or even a Jarron Collins to help wrestle with Drew underneath the hoop. The fine work by the Laker bigs, along with some tasty playmaking by Shannon Brown, more than made up for an off shooting night from Kobe Bryant.

As for the Knicks' offense, it presented not nearly as many problems as we thought it would. Bynum's D got into Amare's head early: by the end of the third quarter, Stoudemire had scored 17 points but on 23 shot attempts (including free-throw possessions). Perhaps for that reason, the Raymond Felton-Stoudemire pick and roll was nowhere to be seen. This reduced the Knicks' attack to transition buckets and largely ineffectual drive-and-kicks. The Lakers' size forced them into a dreadful shooting performance, as New York made just 38% of their twos and 32% of their threes. In addition, the Lakers locked the defensive glass down tight. The Knicks' scored only 0.89 points per trip, nearly 20% below their season average.

This was kind of a tetchy contest throughout. Hostilities flared initially in the first quarter, when Ron Artest got tee'd up for wrapping a hand ever so briefly around the neck of Shawne Williams. Ron then snagged a flagrant in the third after a not-gentle clothesline of Stoudemire. There was also growing frustration with the refs, particularly on the part of Kobe. In the first half he got slapped a few times on drives into the line and was displeased with the lack of whistles. Just before halftime, he picked up a technical foul of his own.

I can't say that Kobe played through his frustration especially well. His shot selection was fine on the whole, but on occasion he seemed to be focused overmuch on drawing fouls instead of converting baskets. He'd drive, and then sort of hurl himself and the ball toward the basket and wait for a whistle that never came. His shooting efficiency on the night (27 points on 30 shots) was subpar, but he did pull in 10 defensive boards and otherwise contributed to the Lakers' sound team D.

The most interesting subplot, though, was the game-within-the-game between Bynum and Amare. Drew did a terrific job of using his wide frame to seal off Amare underneath the hoop, which set himself up for a series of easy dunks. From time to time, he'd also get the rock about eight feet from the hoop and just back Stoudemire down in a manner reminiscent of vintage Shaq. Amare's a fairly big dude, but next to Drew he looks like a small forward. He just doesn't have the mass to anchor against Drew in the post. In any case, it looks as if Bynum's lateral and vertical mobility are almost at 100%, and his touch around the basket is there as well. When his aerobic fitness is back to full capacity and he regains confidence in his ability to string together moves and countermoves, he'll be a monster.

As alluded to, Bynum did get sent off early in the fourth tonight. What happened is that he got whistled for a shooting foul on Amare that should not have been called and expressed his annoyance a bit too enthusiastically. Leon Wood handed out two quick T's, and that was that. Several people were at fault in this sequence:

(1)  Drew: who overreacted to the initial foul. Yeah, it was a bad call, but at this point in the season you know they're going to tee you up if you act like someone just ran over your dog.

(2)  Leon Wood: who first blew the foul call, and then compounded the mistake by handing out multiple techs instead of letting the players cool down. One tech? Fine. But two T's, one after the next, was a petty and needless escalation.

(3)  Laker vets on the court: who should have stepped in and told their young teammate to chill. Odom and Steve Blake were standing nearby as Drew was losing his shit. The refs were already on edge because of the earlier T's and flagrants. The team elders need to recognize a bad situation unfolding and intervene. Pull Drew aside and let him know that his point has been made and that he needs let it go.

In any case, the Lakers win their fourth straight to push their record to 27-11, still third in the West. Their next four - Cleveland, at Golden State, New Jersey and the Clippers, who have a combined winning percentage of 0.306 - look like cake. Then it's a rugged four-game stretch against the Thunder, Mavericks, Nuggets and Jazz.

Rock the hell on, Lake Show.











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