It's late January. As each Lakers game plays out in front of our eyes, we wait to see a spark. Something signifying this isn't all that remains for a team that, when built in the summer, looked like a group prepared to rebel alongside The Tyrant King Kobe and give him one last defiant stand in the league he has dominated for so very long. Each glance at the Western Conference standings becomes more and more uncomfortable as we draw nearer to April; the Lakers on the outside looking in on a playoff bracket that doesn't include any purple and gold.
It's late January. A win against the Utah Jazz wasn't that aforementioned spark. What it was, though, was an incredibly important game for the Lakers to win. With the 7th seeded Jazz in town the Lakers took care of business on both ends of the floor. To no one's surprise, with their franchise center active and locked in, the Lakers looked like a team that shouldn't be chasing the tail coat of the playoffs. Unfortunately, they are. Even with the win, they remain four games out of the playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers now also on the outside, and the Houston Rockets sliding into the 8th seed.
Enough of the negative vibes, though. A win is rare nowadays; like a majestic unicorn galloping along a rainbow leading to a pot of gold. There's plenty to appreciate in Friday night's victory. Kobe Bryant's 14 assist, 14 point (7-10 shooting, 0 3p FGA's), 9 rebound night was phenomenal. The immediate reaction to that stat line is "Kobe needs to do that every time". Unfortunately it isn't as simple as just aiming for 14 assists and calling it a game.
A) The Lakers on the receiving end need to be prepared for his passes (many in mid-air, unfortunately).
B) Once they acquire a coveted Kobe pass, they need to actually MAKE the shot.
Still, Kobe is a great facilitator at times simply because of the attention he draws from the opposing defense. When he drives to the rim it's almost a guarantee that he will force the opposing big under the rim to rotate, which opens up the opportunity to toss a lob up for Dwight Howard to send through the rim like a plump orange through a juicer. When the Pass Mamba has 6 or more assists the Lakers are 12-6 [insert arbitrary stat alert]. Ball movement is healthy for any team, and the Jazz only strung together 16 assists as a team. The Lakers had 26 (14 from Kobe).
With Kobe spreading the ball around, the Lakers wound up with five players (four starters, Pau Gasol off the bench) in double digits. It's hard to recall the last time there was such even production across the board for the Lakers, but with the talent on hand, this was certainly the kind of winning formula envisioned by the front office (perhaps with Steve Nash being the one with 14 assists, however). It's nitpicking in a win, but the only smudge while looking over the box score is that Metta World Peace actually led the team with 16 field goal attempts. He made only five of them (good for 17 points), but they were all from beyond the arc (where he put up 11 attempts). In fact, taking it a step further, Metta (484) actually has more raw field goal attempts on the season than Dwight (413). It's worth noting MWP has played about 100 more minutes than Dwight, and that Dwight is also losing FGA's to FTA's and such. Still, the more you know...
On the topic of Dwight, though, the Lakers decided to try the rare strategy of tossing the ball up into the air in his vicinity and it, non-shockingly, worked. While he's still recovering from back surgery it's clear he has a difficult time bending low and staying coordinated, and should he maintain control, he too often gets the ball stripped. Throwing the ball up instead of around his knees seems like a simple solution at this point. The man can still jump and throw it down, and it eliminates many of the issues involved with trying to get Dwight the ball in the post. Howard had only one turnover last night for the 9th time this season (three of those outings he played less than 30 minutes) while going 8-12 for 17 points. He also grabbed 13 rebounds and sent 2 shots back. Simply put, he looked good out there, which isn't something that has been a truth this season often enough. Kobe made a pointed effort to involve Dwight in the offense early and it was a great way to set the table for a four-course meal for the Lakers.
Perhaps most enjoyable last night, though, was a "Black Swan" night from Pau Gasol. Off the bench for 25:21 minutes worth of basketball, Gasol went to work. 15 points on 7-8 shooting, 7 rebounds, and post moves. Yes, POST MOVES. Pau put his full skill set on display last night as he worked the block, had his mid-range jumper dropping, and even put the ball on the floor in a beautiful drive from the free-throw line for an easy layup. It's flashes like these that leave hope lingering that Pau will find consistency somewhere at the bottom of what's left in his barrel. His game comes and goes, but the man knows how to play basketball. It's whether his body will serve as a vessel-- and one in a Lakers jersey for that matter-- through the final years of his career that remains the question.
The Utah Jazz just couldn't find an option to put points on the board. Their two primary options, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, combined for 22 points. The Lakers out-rebounded Utah 45-30, and the Jazz went 3-14 from deep. Their two leading scorers for the night both came off the bench (Derrick Favors 14, and Gordon Hayward 13). The stats tell the same story as the yes; this game was a landslide in favor of the Lakers. With just about everything going right for Los Angeles, including holding the Jazz to a 37 point first half, the 102-84 victory was much needed and well deserved. A great effort in an important game as the desperate Lakers imposed their will from the opening tip.
It's late January. The Lakers just dominated in a "must-win" game against the Utah Jazz, but they are still in dire need of a spark. A moment to cling onto, as a group, that they can rally around. Sunday the Oklahoma City Thunder will walk into Staples Center looking to prove to themselves, and the basketball world, that they aren't letting these old dogs back into the Western Conference they were champions of last season. A win against a great team like the Thunder doesn't mean all wrongs have been righted. It doesn't save the season. It doesn't mean the Lakers will make the playoffs. But it can serve as a catalyst, a beat of the heart, to bring this group of wandering talent together.
Enjoy the win everyone; just the third victory of 2013 for the Lakers. Sunday's showdown is only a breath away.
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- Pau Gasol is probably still working the post over at SLC Dunk. Go watch the Black Swan in action.