One night after demolishing the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers hit the road against the dangerous Phoenix Suns. In the last meeting between the two teams, the Suns nailed 22 three-pointers (the second-most for a single game in NBA history) en route to a 121-116 victory over the champs. But both teams have changed drastically since then; the Suns revamped their roster through several big trades; and the Lakers have experienced some very unnatural struggles.
With both teams desperately searching for a victory to get themselves back on track, the Lakers ultimately prevailed by a score of 99-95. Led by Kobe’s 24, the Lakers looked great at times and sluggish at others. Ultimately, they held off the Suns down the stretch to secure their fourth win in their past five games. Here are some key takeaways from tonight’s contest:
Bench Bounces Back
The Lakers backup squad played very well tonight. All things considered, I’d even venture to say that they played better than the starters. Collectively, the bench added 40 points on 16-for-31 shooting and 20 rebounds. Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown provided the biggest boosts. Odom chipped in 12 points and 10 rebounds and showed numerous times exactly why he is such a tough cover for opposing big men. Brown halted his recent struggles by simply playing more aggressively; he attacked the rim whenever he had an opportunity and that led to him making 7 trips to the free throw line (and nailing all 7 attempts). He finished the night with 13 points. Heck, even Luke Walton registered a bucket.
The Lakers scored a lot of points on second chance opportunities after offensive rebounds. Andrew Bynum set the tone early by grabbing two offensive boards on the second possession of the game. From that point, the Lakers dominated the glass on both sides of the court. They out-rebounded the Suns 47 to 31 and collected 14 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ five. Individually, the offensive rebound totals were: Bynum (4), Odom (4), Artest (2), Gasol (2), and Kobe (2).
Will the Real Pau Gasol Please Stand Up?
I’ve blasted Pau recently because I attribute a lot of the Lakers struggles to his ineffectiveness; he simply hasn’t been playing at all near what I expect. And tonight the trend continued. Two games ago against the Grizzlies, Pau failed to reach the free throw line for the first time all season. Tonight he managed to accomplish the same feat; in 35 minutes of play, he didn’t attempt a single free throw! Why not? Because he’s simply not being aggressive enough. First, he barely asserts himself into the offense to take shots. In the first half, Pau took only 3 shots and scored only 2 points. It was clear the Phil Jackson wanted to get him involved–Pau attempted 6 shots in the third quarter. But on the whole, he just wasn’t effective on the offensive end; he finished with only 6 points on 3-for-10 shooting. On the bright side, he contributed in other ways by grabbing 9 rebounds, dishing 6 assists, recording 2 steals, and blocking 2 shots. The Lakers turnaround will not be complete until Pau returns to his usual 20-point, 10-rebound self.
Artest has taken a lot of heat this week. First, his performance has not been great; for example, against Memphis, Artest played 25 minutes and had the same number of turnovers (3) as he did points, rebounds, and assists combined. Second, word leaked that he had an argument with the Zen Master during a recent Lakers practice. Well, Artest responded in a huge way tonight against the Suns. He started the game extremely active on the offensive end of the court; he had a couple early post-ups, a dribble-drive, and a knock-down three. His outside shot was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the night. Artest nailed 3 three-pointers, including a crucial trey with 1:30 left in the game to extend the Lakers lead to six points. He finished the night with a solid all-around line: 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Poor Three-Point Defense
Like I mentioned earlier, the last time these teams met, the Suns nailed 22 three-pointers. Tonight, the Suns added to their insane total with another 11 threes (47.8% on the night). How’d they do that? Because the Lakers played terrible perimeter defense. On the first time around, the Suns were nailing every attempt, regardless of whether a defender was present. But this time the Suns were wide open and they made the Lakers pay. The only way the Suns remained in the ball game was by chucking threes and getting three points for every Lakers two. Jared Dudley led the attack with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting (3-4 from beyond the arc). And six different Suns players hit at least one three ball.
Hot and Cold
Finally, the Lakers inconsistency concerned me tonight. By quarter, the Lakers scored 31 in the first, 18 in the second, 31 in the third, and 19 in the fourth. They started the game off hot and closed it cold. Their poor outputs in the second and fourth quarters kept the Suns in the ball game. Meanwhile, the Suns scored 24, 26, 23, and 22 in each of the four quarters, respectively.
In terms of a big picture assessment, a win is a win and we saw lots of encouraging things tonight. The bench picked up their play, Bynum continued to make progress and prove to be a huge difference, and we got a nice contribution from Artest. Kobe limited his shot attempts and took over only when needed in the third quarter (scored 12 of his 24). And while I would have loved to see a more consistent game (the flow was very disjointed), the Suns are not an easy team to beat at home. The Lakers have won four of the last five and look to continue their winning ways on Friday at home against the Hornets.