As the post-all star break stretch is arguably the most crucial portion of a team’s regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers (39-19) came out of this year’s midseason break presented with an opportunity to catch a wind of momentum and ride it all the way into the playoffs. After playing seven games in 11 days prior to the break, the Lakers took the STAPLES Center court for the first time tonight, as they played host to the Atlanta Hawks (34-22).
Displaying an early sense of urgency, the Lakers jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead, powered by the strong shooting of Derek Fisher, who scored the game’s first six points. A layup by Atlanta’s Joe Johnson with 6:18 left brought the Hawks within four, 10-6, but that’s the closest they would pull within, as the Lakers continued to rack up the points.
A collective scoring effort by the Lakers in the first quarter helped the Lakers increase their lead to as much as 15 points near the end of the period. However, Jamal Crawford was fouled and knocked down two free throws before the buzzer sounded and the Lakers held a 28-15 lead heading into the second frame of play.
The Lakers maintained control from the onset of the second period, and despite allowing the Hawks to cut the deficit to as little as eight with 5:41 to play, they didn’t let the Hawks pull any closer. With the starters back on the court, the Lakers slowly regained control of the scoreboard.
The Lakers extended on their lead with a 14-0 run over a four minute span, which helped them mount a 19-6 run to end the first half and take a 54-33 lead into the break. In the final five minutes of play, the Hawks sent the Lakers to the foul line 15 times, where the Lakers converted 12 of their attempts.
Behind 54.5 percent shooting from the field, and 11 rebounds from Andrew Bynum, the Lakers were able to build their lead up to as much as 22, creating a large cushion between them and the Hawks.
Josh Smith paced the Hawks with four unanswered points coming out of the break (and the Hawks first six points), but the Lakers refused to let up, as Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest hit 3-pointers on both sides of two successful free throws by Pau Gasol. Artest continued his strong presence on the offensive end by converting two attempts at the charity stripe and scoring a layup off of an assist by Fisher to give the Lakers a 66-40 lead with just over six minutes remaining.
Marvin Williams, Al Horford and Johnson each scored for the Hawks to propel a mini 6-0 run by Atlanta, but Bryant went two for two from the line to put the Lakers back up by 22. Bryant continued to guide the Lakers offense as he knocked down two more free throws and drilled a jumper to give him 17 points on the night.
A 3-pointer by Bryant with 20 seconds remaining gave the Lakers a 26-point lead, which they carried into the fourth and final period, as they looked to close out the Hawks and pick up their 39th win of the season.
Shannon Brown splashed in a triple 20 seconds into the final period to put the Lakers up by 29, and they never looked back, as they brought in their final reserve with 7:16 remaining to hold on for a 104-80 victory. The Lakers shared the wealth throughout, as every player who hit the court registered points on the night.
Although he only finished with five points, Bynum helped lead the Lakers defense with 15 rebounds and three blocks. Artest also made solid contributions, posting 11 points on an effective 4 of 7 shooting.
Bryant, who took home the All-Star Game MVP award this past Sunday, led all scorers with 20 points, while also dishing out five assists and picking up two steal in only 26 minutes of action.
Former Laker, Josh Powell who was apart of the Lakers 2010 championship team but is now a member of the Hawks, received his championship ring prior to tipoff.
The Lakers will return to the court tomorrow night, as they return to the road to take on the injury-riddled Portland Trail Blazers.