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Lakers 106, Timberwolves 98: Crime And Punishment

This game was far more interesting than it had any right to be. Combine the likelihood of rust after four days of Laker inaction with the narcotizing effects of a bad, boring opponent, and we had all the ingredients in place for a snoozy, forgettable Friday night. Instead, we got a contest that was close until the end and rife with drama and violence, if not quality play. For all that, the Lakers have themselves to blame. They picked up the win, 106 to 98, but there wasn't all that much to like in their performance.

Obviously, the talent gap between the Lakers and Timberwolves is colossal. Early on, though, the Wolves overcame that handicap with smarter execution and a more spirited approach to the game. Behind the sizzling stroke of Wesley Johnson, who finished with a career-high 29 points, they rode a 14-0 run in the first quarter to a double-digit lead. The Lakers would spend the rest of the first half whittling it down, and in the third quarter and most of the fourth, the contest settled into a tight battle separated by one or two possessions. Each side could've gained separation by stringing together a few minutes of sharp play, but neither could get turnovers under control long enough to find a groove.

The night exploded out of its low boil with a little more than six minutes to play. With the game tied at 87, Michael Beasley drove baseline to the hoop, where he encountered one Andrew Bynum. Which is to say, he "encountered" Drew in the same sense that an open bottle of whiskey encounters Keith Richards. Rather than make a play on the ball, Drew elected to let his shoulder and forearm do the talking. He delivered an open-field hit that would be legal in the UFC but in the NBA is more affectionately known as a "flagrant two." Very appropriately, the refs elected (if I might borrow the past phraseology of Kobe Bryant) to ship his ass out. You can review the sequence starting at the 1:45 mark of this reel.

The free throws and ensuing possession gave the Wolves a three-point lead, but down the stretch their offense completely stalled out. They scored just five points on their final 14 possessions, while the champs seemed to get a needed burst of zip from the Bynum ejection. Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom made key plays in the final minutes to generate the necessary breathing room.

On the night the Lakers' offensive attack was fairly successful, if not always pretty. They scored 1.13 points per possession and had little trouble accruing points after a grim first quarter. Holding onto the ball was the biggest problem. Kobe, who had a poor outing and appeared to be hobbled by his injured ankle, and Pau Gasol, who got stripped of the rock way too many times, combined for nine turnovers. Ron Artest (2-for-9 shooting, three turnovers) was also a bit of a millstone.

But Pau had a soft, delicate touch on his shot today and led the team with 25 points on only 17 shots. His efficient conversions of open looks, whether from the midrange in halfcourt sets or at the rim in transition, were critical to keeping the Lakers in the game. He seems to have become, by the way, the Lakers' most dependable finisher on fast breaks. The way he runs the court, catches the ball up high and finishes quickly, he's a far more reliable option than any of the numerous guards and wings who have a propensity to overpass or pound awkward layups off the backboard.

The champs also benefitted from productive outside shooting from the bench. Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Odom together made five of nine from long distance. Although Lamar personally didn't shoot the ball as well as he's done lately, he made vital contributions in other respects. His five assists were well earned, and his four offensive rebounds led to 10 second-chance points. Odom for Sixth Man of the Year!

Credit the Timberwolves for bringing the effort tonight. Though a lot of teams in their position would be clocking out at this point in the year, they put in an honest night at the office. In addition to his scoring, Wesley Johnson played nice D on Kobe. Nikola Pekovic gave solid defense in the post. And Kevin Love got a 15-and-13 double double... hopefully after the game he hit In n' Out for a real double double.

As for Drew, we'll have to see whether the league cops allow him to go Sunday against Portland. If not, we can't really bitch. One thing I've always liked about Drew is his willingness to give the hard foul, but there's a line between hard and dirty, and he clearly crossed it. Doesn't make him a horrible person or anything, but he did the crime, so now he's gotta do the time.

Meanwhile, the Lakers continue their climb up the standings. The Mavericks lost tonight, so the Lakers are now a full game up in the race for second seed in the West. The Bulls and Celtics also lost, so the Lakers climb within a game of those teams as well. Not a bad way to start the weekend, unless you're Andrew Bynum. Or Michael Beasley.










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