Just one day after a plethora of Laker greats flooded the Nokia Theatre to celebrate the life of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers were set to host the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center with emotions still running high.
Los Angeles needed to convert these emotions into positive vibes on the floor once again, after they clearly played into the Lakers favor Wednesday when L.A. converted these feelings into a 113-99 victory over the Boston Celtics. Dwight Howard also discovered a desire for winning that has arguably been absent from his game thus far in the season.
Portland, led behind rookie guard Damian Lillard and the return of the highly energetic Wesley Matthews, was looking to make amends after being dominated by the Lakers in the two teams last match up in late December. The Blazers were never ahead throughout the game, and their lackluster 8-20 away record heading into Los Angeles Friday night only proved that they had a tough battle ahead of them. Portland had also lost each of their six previous games, creating a perfect opportunity for the Lakers to create a barrier between the two organizations who are neck and neck in the Western Conference with a victory.
The Lakers needed to take quick control of the boards early and dominate their presence in the paint to steer clear of an early Blazers lead, and Dwight Howard did just that. Howard established his presence in the Lakers first offensive possession, putting away a dunk. He then, with the help of Steve Nash, demonstrated the beauty of the pick and roll on their next trip down the court, with a nice feed from Nash giving Dwight the easy trip to the basket to finish yet another dunk.
Nicolas Batum hit both of his first two shot attempts for Portland, including a three from the corner, but heard jeers from the Staples crowd after his third attempt resulted in the dreaded air ball. The Lakers continued to impress with ball movement as the clock ticked by, having complete control on each offensive play and making nearly every shot attempt. Their defense, however, was unable to match their offensive flow, and the Blazers had nine points after only two minutes in the game.
The energy Los Angeles continued to showcase again and again enabled them to keep getting great looks at the basket. Even if L.A. found themselves unable to convert the first basket, they were hungry to grab the offensive rebound, handing them the opportunity to put up another shot. Throughout all of this, however, Portland were always right back in the game, converting just as many opportunities to points on the board. A few turnovers by both squads turned the game into a fast break competition, but Kobe Bryant had the final say of the quarter, pushing the Lakers ahead with a driving layup.
Despite some terrible defense, Los Angeles managed to close out the first 12 minutes of the competition ahead of Portland 30-28.
Antawn Jamison got the ball rolling for the Lakers in the second quarter, putting away two points off of a Jodie Meeks assist within the first 12 seconds. A string of mismanaged possessions allowed the Blazers to tie the game back up at 32, but the Lakers bench turned it around offensively, including an energetic driving layup from Meeks. After Meyers Leonard committed three consecutive fouls within nine seconds for the Blazers, the Lakers seemed to have both the bonus and momentum on their side, forcing Portland to take a timeout.
Howard continued to look as if his shoulder was nothing to worry about, grabbing rebounds and putting up baskets while extending his right shoulder. After drawing a tough foul under the basket where he tweaked his shoulder, however, the Lakers needed to take a 20 second timeout to allow Howard to check it was not aggravated. Howard did return to the floor after the timeout, but after missing both of his free throws, the Blazers jumped at the opportunity to tie the game back up.
The Lakers were unable to find answers defensively for both Hickson and Batum throughout the first half. An unimpressive shooting half from Steve Nash, who was 1-6 from the field, on top of 1-5 shooting from Metta World Peace enabled the Blazers to always be at L.A.’s heels. Kobe Bryant, who had an aggressive offensive first quarter of the game, did not take a single shot in the second, which was troubling to the Lakers offensive numbers as well. J.J. Hickson put away both of his shot attempts in the final 40 seconds of the half, pushing his personal total up to 16. In short, the Blazers took advantage of the Lakers many issues to somehow retake control of the game just before the buzzer, and L.A. headed into the locker room at the half trailing 53-55.
Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard continued to make life hard for the Los Angeles Lakers, helping the Blazers take a six point lead as soon as the quarter started. L.A. must have left their energy in the locker room, as Portland came out prepared to battle, not wanting to drop their sixth straight game. Despite Bryant completing a three point play, the squad found themselves on the wrong end of a 7-0 run, giving up three turnovers within two minutes.
Kobe Bryant looked prepared to have a completely change of game strategy in the third quarter, fighting for trips to the line and looking to make baskets instead of sitting back and working on ball distribution. The Blazers getting free trips to the basket from a lack of Los Angeles defense, however, made L.A.’s offensive strategies worthless. Just about half way through the quarter, L.A. gave up their 12th turnover of the game – a statistic that needs addressing moving forward if the Lakers are realistically looking at nabbing a playoff spot.
Bryant continued to be the one man show for the Lakers as the quarter passed by, including a huge play where Kobe grabbed both the steal and the bucket to put his personal total at 22 points. All 11 of the Lakers points within the first six minutes of the third quarter were off of the hands of Bryant.
Steve Nash switched his strategy from shot attempts, which were clearly poor within the first half, to distribution, which began working in the Lakers favor. The pure ability of finding the open man in just a small gap of a passing lane that Nash possesses kept the Lakers competing in the third. Kobe Bryant continued to shine offensively, scoring 18 in the third quarter alone. It still wasn’t enough to control a hot shooting Batum, who nailed a three point jumper at the end of the quarter. The Blazers still had the lead over the Lakers entering the final 12 minutes of the game, ahead of L.A. 82-80.
Dwight Howard reentered the game to start off the final quarter, pushing Kobe Bryant to the bench for a much needed break, forcing the Lakers to find baskets from another member of the roster. Jodie Meeks put together both a quick release and a quick jumper before Portland’s defense even knew what was going on, draining a three-pointer to bring the crowd to their feet. The Lakers strung together five straight baskets from five attempts, and after a three from World Peace and another basket off of the hands of Meeks, L.A. took back the lead.
The right shoulder became less and less of an issue as Dwight grabbed more and more buckets and rebounds, and the Lakers slowly found themselves pulling away. While L.A. looked to work hard for their baskets and make plays off of the hands of multiple players, the Blazers were able to waltz down the floor, pull up for a three and drain it, keeping the visitors in the game. Howard got cold offensively, missing three consecutive attempts, but Kobe heated up the floor once again with a 15-foot two point shot, cutting the deficit to just two.
The Lakers needed to stop the Blazers on a few possessions in order to grab the victory, but were making it seem quite difficult to execute. Damian Lillard, as expected, excelled in the closing minutes with his energy – something an older Lakers roster couldn’t compete with. L.A., however, had experience on their side, and Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant demonstrated experience and aggressiveness in their own ways. Bryant completed a three point play with 3:48 remaining on the clock, pushing his own tally to 36 points, and giving the Lakers a two point lead.
Wild basketball ensued for the next few minutes, with double or triple team defense landing on Kobe Bryant, forcing crazy passes and tense shot attempts. Nash continued to be iffy from the field, even missing a free throw after a technical foul. Lillard capitalized on this on the Blazers next play down the floor, tying up the game at 105 after drilling a jumper. Nash finally had a basket fall, possibly the most important out of all of his attempts all night, giving L.A. a two point lead.
Aldridge ran the clock down on Portland’s last possession of the game, and after turning, putting up a shot and missing, the ball was in the Lakers possession for the final 14 seconds. After drawing a foul and sealing the game with a trip to the line, Kobe Bryant nailed both of his free throws to put the Lakers ahead four. The Lakers closed out a crazy second half on top, beating Portland 111-107.