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Lakers 92, Bobcats 84: No Barnes, But Plenty Of Bynum

And now, the truly hard work begins. Since outbrawling the Oklahoma City Thunder last Sunday, the Lakers have had a pretty low-key week, with just two games in five days, both against opponents drawn from the NBA's downtrodden. On Tuesday they logged a check-the-box win over the wretched Timberwolves. Tonight they returned home to face the less wretched but still unimposing Charlotte Bobcats. The champs' performance in this one didn't produce any highlights that are likely to appear on the year-end DVD, but nor did they let their attention stray to the savage four-game road trip that begins this weekend. A 17 to 2 run in the first quarter established a largish cushion that the Cats never ate into and heralded a routine, 92 to 84 victory. It's the Lake Show's sixth straight W since the All-Star break, keeping them two games behind the Mavericks in the Western Conference standings.

We all hoped and expected to cheer the return of Matt Barnes tonight. Out since early January with an injured knee, Matt has been practicing with the team and was slated to see action against the Cats. Before tip-off, however, he tweaked a nerve in his upper leg and as a result spent the night in the locker room getting treatment. After the game Matt told Mike Trudell that the leg had "calmed down" and that he'd accompany his teammates on the upcoming road trip, but there's no word yet on when he'll play. Not that there'd be any point in such a prediction: tonight reminds us that no one's really "back" until we see them on the court during an actual game.

This evening the Lakers got by just fine without Barnes, thanks in no small part to Andrew Bynum. Drew was the linchpin of a splendid defensive effort that held Charlotte to 0.92 points per possession. The kid was straight-up monstrous. His six blocks and 12 defensive rebounds (out of 17 total) are impressive enough but hardly capture his dominance. He was quick, rangy and aggressive and swallowed up nearly everything the Cats tried to get around the hoop.

His presence visibly intimidated Charlotte ballhandlers, who for long stretches simply stopped trying to penetrate for fear of Bynum's rock-star-from-Mars awesomeness. Drew's performance tonight was another step in his development into a guy who can tilt the playing field in the Lakers' favor without a lot of touches. Granted, the Bobcats don't have the deadliest array of low-post scoring threats, but if Drew can exert something like this kind of influence against teams that do, I'll agree not to make any more World Cup jokes at his expense.

As a team the Lakers have really turned up the volume on D since the break. Three straight games now they've allowed less than a point per possession. In their six contests since losing to Cleveland, their opponents have averaged 0.97 points per trip. Which is nice, because the offense has seen better days. Outside of that first-quarter explosion, the Lakers struggled to string together points against Charlotte because of some high-volume, low-accuracy shooting from Kobe Bryant and brick after brick from everyone else who was allowed to attempt a three-pointer.

Kobe played as badly as you can play and still score 27 points. Including his free-throw possessions, he took 28 shots, a goodly number of which were not exactly in the flow of the offense. To be honest, I'm at the point where I don't really have anything new to say about this issue. There will be games when Kobe behaves like this, no amount of analysis or thoughtful criticism is going to make a difference, and we can only hope that when it happens, enough other things go right for the Lakers to survive. Life's too short to waste sentences covering the same ground repeatedly.

Tonight those "other things" took the form of a low turnover rate, 19 made free throws in 21 attempts and high-efficiency scoring from Pau Gasol, who booked 20 points on 16 shots. There is, however, a new injury for us to worry about. In the third quarter, Derek Fisher was battling for a rebound when his left arm got tangled up with Kwame Brown. While trying to rip the ball away, Kwame appeared to hyperextend Fish's elbow, and Fish left the game in some pain. The diagnosis is a sprain, to be reevaluated tomorrow, but both Phil Jackson and Kobe sounded optimistic that the indestructible Fish would be ready to go on Sunday.

That's when the Lakers will face the mighty Spurs, followed by visits to Atlanta, Miami and Dallas. These four squads have a combined home winning percentage of 0.773, so we're about to find out whether the champs have really found their postseason form.











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