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Lakers 108, Rockets 99: If He Stays Healthy...

In mid-December, Rockets GM Daryl Morey nearly had a deal in place to acquire Pau Gasol. You might've heard about it. His plan was to make Pau his starting power forward and sign free agent Nene to be his starting center. Watching the Rockets' 99 to 108 loss to the Lakers at Staples Center tonight, you can understand his anxiety over Houston's front line. It is small. Jordan Hill, who's barely large enough to play power forward, is the first-team center, and reserve Samuel Dalembert is the only regular who even looks like a credible NBA big man. This evening the Lakers showed what they can do against teams with too little beef in the paint. It took them a while, but their second-half commitment to pounding the ball inside eventually had its intended effect and moved their season record to 4-3.

But I suppose we should talk about Kobe Bryant first. Over the past 48 hours Lakerdom has risen in anger at its star shooting guard like few times I can remember. Shooting 8 for 28 amid a generally ragged start to the new season will do that. You never know how Kobe will respond to poopstorms of this sort. Would he pout and go on a shooting strike? Would he binge-shoot even more egregiously as a middle finger to his critics? In the event, he did neither. He just kept on firing, as he tends to do. His first half, in which he scored 15 points on 17 shots (including free-throw possessions), seemed an insufficient correction to his Denver performance. In the second half, though, he worked closer to the basket for better looks and spit fire like Harry Burkhart. His final line (37 points on 33 shots, 6 assists, just 2 turnovers) should help balance out the ongoing debate about his role in the Laker offense.

Just as influential in tonight's outcome was Andrew Bynum. Drew was able to ragdoll every Rocket defender except Dalembert, who played only 18 minutes, and after two quarters of feeding the post not nearly often enough, in the second half the Lakers agreed that yes, Bynum should touch the ball more or less whenever he wants it. Drew worked hard in this one. He ran the floor well, set up in deep post position and sucked in rebounds by the fistful. He scored 21 points and collected 22 rebounds for his first career 20-20 game. And his conditioning seems to be coming around nicely. We all knew he'd make a huge difference on this team when he returned from the Barea suspension, but I don't think anyone really expected him to be in midseason form so quickly. Drew's a lock to start in the All-Star Game if (all together now!) he stays healthy.

Bynum's ownership of the paint and Houston's lack of quality bigs forced them to play offense entirely on the perimeter. Their attack was one jumpshot after the next, interrupted only by the occasional transition opportunity. They took care of the ball and shot well enough to hang in for most of the night. Down the stretch, though, their offensive rebounding dried up completely, and they couldn't overcome a teamwide inability to get to the free-throw line (just seven FTA's) or a horrendous shooting night from Kevin Martin, who missed 12 of his 17 attempts.

Quietly but efficiently, Pau put up 14 points and eight boards. He seems very comfortable letting Bynum serve as the first low-post option and finding his shots in the 14-to-17-foot range. Beyond the Lakers' Big Three there were nice contributions up and down the roster. Steve Blake had another fine effort (11 points on 9 shots, 2 assists, no turnovers), which should keep Darius Morris on the shelf a bit longer. Metta World Peace didn't shoot well but showed a rare touch for playmaking en route to five assists. Troy Murphy remains a defensive liability but rebounded and buried a couple open looks. Best of all, Matt Barnes played 20 minutes and DIDN'T ATTEMPT A SINGLE THREE-POINTER. I'm floored, to be honest, but happy.

Up next for the Lake Show is a tough one: at Portland on Thursday night. Josh McRoberts didn't play this evening because of a sore foot, but it would be nice to have him back for the Trail Blazers. After that it's back to Staples for the Warriors on Friday. Enjoy the over-0.500 record, everyone!










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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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