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Lakers 104, Hawks 80: Drew Completes Me

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You can't really say this was a must-win for the Lakers. Such a thing doesn't exist in late February. But had they pulled the same crap-in-a-bag act we saw at the end of their Grammy trip, the stink around this team would've got extraordinarily pungent. Graciously enough, they spared us the stench and instead began the regular-season homestretch with in first-rate form, pile-driving the Atlanta Hawks, 104 to 80. The blowout took shape in the first quarter, as the champs built an early 15-point lead, which then reached 21 at halftime and 26 in the third. With the outcome never in doubt, Phil Jackson was able to give light minutes to all of his starters in hopes of keeping some gas in their tanks for tomorrow night's visit to Portland.

This evening's victory featured a commanding defensive performance from Andrew Bynum. In his 26 minutes of action, Drew repelled nearly every Atlanta attempt to score in the paint. He looked mobile and aggressive, showed excellent instincts while challenging shots and owned the defensive glass. His menacing presence reduced the Hawks' half-court attack to an exclusively perimeter-based operation. With his teammates quickly closing out on shooters and the Hawks getting nothing in the way of second-chance points, the Atlanta offense wheezed and sputtered all night and finished with just 0.88 points per trip. If Drew played D like this 70 times a season, he'd challenge Dwight Howard for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

In nearly every respect, the Lakers tonight gave us just what we wanted to see. They looked nothing like the dispirited, shambolic clown show that got drilled in Charlotte and Cleveland. The energy and movement on both ends of the floor were good. Everyone was looking to share the ball. No one was taking plays off on D. Right away it became apparent that the Hawks didn't have much fight in them, and the champs were decisive in putting the game away quickly.

The offensive attack had a lovely egalitarian balance. In the first quarter alone, eight different Lakers got on the board. Kobe Bryant was the game's leading scorer with 20 points on nicely efficient shooting. Pau Gasol, Shannon Brown, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest contributed double-digit points as well. As a team the Lakers did a ton of damage at the free-throw line. They made 34 free throws (a season high) on 40 attempts (matching their season high). The offensive glass was still another fertile source of scoring, as the yellow and purp pulled in 35% of their own misses for 13 second-chance points. Six different Lakers had an offensive board that led to a second-chance bucket.

As for the Hawks, their only happy moment came when Josh Powell collected his second Laker championship ring. (Seeing Josh Smith hurl halfcourt passes off the backboard at the speed of sound was, I suppose, also kind of entertaining.) Otherwise, they had the bearing of a team that knew it didn't have a chance and didn't care to pretend otherwise. Two of their starters, Mike Bibby and Jason Collins, went scoreless. The most damning element of that sentence isn't that Bibby and Collins went scoreless, but that they're actually starters. For a team that somehow has won 34 games.

It's tempting to infer that the Hawks hit the L.A. party scene a bit too enthusiastically this past weekend, but tonight's mail-in job isn't that unusual for them. As C.A. noted this morning, no one quits on a game quite like the Hawks. I know you can't read too much into a single performance - see, e.g., the Lakers in Cleveland - but I feel completely comfortable saying that these guys have zero shot in the East. Out of curiosity, I just checked the Bodog betting lines for this year's Eastern Conference title. The Hawks are listed at 35-to-1, which if anything strikes me as overly optimistic. (The Knicks, FYI, are at 15-to-1.)

But that's for Atlanta fans, all dozen of them, to worry about. The Lakers now move to 39-19, two games behind Dallas in the West. They're not popping up in any trade deadline rumors, so one hopes they can use tonight's win to settle into a nice little groove. MOAR BYNUM defense like we saw this evening would be plenty welcome.











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