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Lakers 101, Hawks 87: Super Eight

On Thursday night, the Lakers get their long-awaited rematch bout with the Miami Heat, who humiliated them back on Christmas Day. The game will be played under circumstances no one saw coming. Tonight the storm clouds that've been gathering around the Heat look more menacing than ever, as Miami face-planted at home to the Portland Trail Blazers for their fifth consecutive loss. The Lakers, meanwhile, continue to pound on fools left and right. With another surprisingly easy road victory, 101 to 87 over the Atlanta Hawks, the champs' winning streak has reached eight, tying their best run of the season. The disintegrating Heat will be eyeing Thursday as a last-stand, save-our-season kind of game, which isn't really ideal from the Lakers' perspective. But if they play with the deluxe form they've shown since the All-Star break, no amount of desperation on Miami's part will make a diff.

Tonight's performance featured a resplendent offensive attack that cut the Hawks' defense to ribbons. All evening long, the Lakers played inside-out from the post, exploiting their height advantage over Atlanta's front line and ripping seams in the Hawks' interior D. Sharing the rock, making strong moves to the hole, stepping into jumpers... all that good stuff was on the plate, and it came together deliciously in the form of 1.20 points per possession. Kobe Bryant set the pace with 26 points, his game smooth and in the flow of the Triangle system. In the process he passed Moses Malone to reach sixth on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

Andrew Bynum, as you know, has been the breakout star of the Lakers' post-ASB charge, and tonight he kept up his dominating play. On defense he pushed the action away from the basket. He hedged well on Atlanta's pick-and-roll sets. He blocked three shots. He pulled down 12 defensive boards (and 16 total). He was the biggest, baddest man on the floor. And unlike the past few games, he got to pile up some points in addition to doing the heavy lifting on defense and the glass. Operating over the top of the much shorter Al Horford, Drew dropped in 16 on just 10 shots. Nice job, son. I for one am glad you're not a Denver Nugget.

The Laker bench did good work in the first half, helping to establish an eight-point lead at the break. At halftime Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown had combined to score 20 points on 13 shots. I really liked Lamar's game in particular. He was aggressive attacking near the hoop, and his defense forced Josh Smith to drift around on the perimeter and hoist up on long-distance J's. Although Josh actually shot well from out there, that's where you want him to be if you're defending the Hawks.

Ron Artest as well had a solid defensive game. He looks more comfortable and focused these days, more at ease with his role on the team, than he did at times earlier in the season. Ron spent the evening all up in the grill of Joe Johnson, who shot 4 for 14 and scored just 11 points. Really, the Lakers' team defense has become sounder in so many respects. Remember when the perimeter bros used to double-team the post unnecessarily, over and over again, leaving opposing three-point shooters wide-ass open? That habit appears to have been broken. Guys are sticking tight all over the court, and I have to imagine that Bynum's emergence as a kind of Dwight Howard Lite has a lot to do with this.

Now at 46-19, the Lakers are beginning to put real pressure on teams above them in the standings. The Spurs remain out of reach, but two games or fewer separate the champs from the Celtics, Mavericks and Bulls. And whereas their early-season schedule was heavily loaded with dates at Staples Center, the Lakers have now played five more games on the road than at home. If they can take care of business on Thursday against the Heat and Saturday in Dallas - granted, easier written than done - they have a shot to go on a serious finishing kick.

This Miami game will be a fascinating yardstick. In December, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade killed the Lakers with powerful drives to the hoop while Chris Bosh lit up Pau Gasol with his midrange game. As beatdowns go, it was pretty rough. The opportunity is there now for the Lakers to demonstrate how far they've come defensively. Just as they dispelled the Spurs' aura of invincibility, they can put to rest concerns about the matchup problems Miami seemed to expose in the teams' first meeting.

We'll talk plenty more about that over the next couple days. For now, there's a winning streak to savor. Eight games and counting.











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