Here are some aspects of last night’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks to look at:
Road Warriors – Yes, the Lakers’ record on the road this year is a pathetic 5-11, but the fact that they were able to pull out a tough victory against a tough Dallas Mavericks team that can score in a multitude of ways and plays solid defense is a good indication going forward. On top of that, they did it while Kobe Bryant was struggling to score. Normally, when Bryant struggles to score and has to be lifted by his teammates, it usually happens at home. The fact that he had enough help last night on the road proves that the Lakers truly are attempting to stick together, as they recently made a point to do in a brief “players only” meeting.
Inside Men – Previously, we have seen the same old story. The Lakers big men of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum get going early, and then disappear in the second half. As recently as Monday night, this was the case. Sometimes the Lakers end up with a win, and sometimes they don’t. Last night, however, saw the Lakers big men playing a big part offensively down the stretch. Bryant deferred to his big men on two consecutive plays down the stretch, which resulted in high percentage shots. Gasol and Bynum combined for 43 points, 23 rebounds (nine offensive), seven assists, and four steals. Additionally, down the stretch, both big men gave multiple efforts on the offensive glass. This type of assertive play has proven to be a difference maker over the past few years. The Lakers were able to deliver a steady dose of their inside presence, and it definitely helped.
Derek Fisher – Time and time again, starting point guard Derek Fisher seemingly senses when to step it up. With his longtime back-court-mate Kobe Bryant struggling, Derek Fisher felt the need to step up and hit some shots, and he did. It was great to see Derek hit shots not just in the fourth quarter, but also throughout the game. Almost all Lakers’ fans are begging for a new point guard, and there definitely is a need to improve at that position, but no one can ever question Fisher’s heart or leadership.
After spending his summer and fall seasons at the negotiating table rather than in the gym, Fisher did not have adequate time to get himself into the type of shape he likes to be in. At 37 years old, it is much harder to catch up on training and conditioning than at a younger age. Perhaps Fisher is finally rounding into shape, and getting his legs under him, thus allowing his shots to fall easier. The return of Steve Blake likely also has something to do with Fisher’s ability to be more aggressive in spurts. Blake’s play of late has been a huge positive for the Lakers, and it appears as if head coach Mike Brown is faced with a decision to make in each game when it comes to whom he wants closing out games at the point guard position. So far, it has worked out and both players have unique abilities that positively influence the game down the stretch.
Rebounds and Turnovers – The Lakers were out-rebounded by the Mavs, 27-19 (11-5 on the offensive glass) in the first half. They made this stat more respectable by the end of the game, getting out-rebounded by just one, 50-49 (and 21-17 on the offensive glass). However, the amount of second chance points the Mavericks earned allowed them to stay in the game.
Additionally, the high number of turnovers (17) also allowed Dallas to keep the game close. Kobe Bryant is the main initiator of the offense, so he is expected to have turnovers, but seven turnovers is much too high. In addition to this, Pau Gasol had five turnovers. Without a dynamic point guard on this team, Gasol is seemingly the secondary play-maker. This is a plus for him, as witnessed by his scoring output last night. The additional touches allow him to create offense for others, but also more offense for himself. However, both players must adjust and clean up their turnovers.
Even with all the second chance opportunities and points-off-of-turnovers for the Mavs, the Lakers somehow found a way to win, which is an encouraging sign.
Kobe Bryant – Okay, when you’re as lethal as the Black Mamba, every team focuses their defense around you, and the Dallas Mavericks are no different. Faced with a bigger, athletic forward like Shawn Marion along with disruptive double-teams, even the most explosive offensive players are liable to have an off night once in a while. However, the fact that Kobe didn’t try to take over the game late, as he is inclined to do, was a huge plus for the Lakers. Plenty of times we have see Bryant have an off night only to come out in the fourth quarter scoring multiple buckets in a row. Other times we have also seen him attempt to do this, only to take a few tough shots and miss.
The Lakers live and die with Kobe Bryant because he is still the most dangerous player with the game on the line. But, it was refreshing to see him not try and force his offense too much, especially against a team that was absolutely focused on his every move. He recognized that his front-line players were playing aggressive, and allowed the offense to go towards them. He also let Derek Fisher take more control of the ball down the stretch as well. The team played much better overall, as there was lots of ball and player movement, especially down the stretch. Often times we have seen other players stand around and hold the ball, only looking and waiting for Kobe to free himself up and isolate while the defense sets behind him. Last night, the execution down the stretch looked much more fluid, and this will have to continue going forward.
Lastly, we have all witnessed what happens when Kobe Bryant has a bad shooting night. He typically offsets it with an efficient, high scoring affair in his next outing. Tonight the Lakers face the Oklahoma City Thunder (26-7), so hopefully he will be efficient, but hopefully the Lakers will also continue to utilize their greatest advantage, their dominant big men.
Last night was a great start to a tough two-game road trip, and can help the Lakers build momentum going into the All-Star break. The Lakers appear to be coming together, and more importantly, sticking together. The recent meeting they had seems to be more of a mid-season check-in rather than an emotional, motivational airing out session. With this veteran team, the message is clear: The second half of the season is here, and it’s time to buckle down and play Lakers basketball.