Lakers 92, Celtics 86

Many thought tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics would be the toughest for the Los Angeles Lakers on their current seven-game road trip. For one, the Celtics are the Lakers’ most hated rival and always prove to be a tough opponent. Second, the Lakers have struggled all season to step up in similar big-game situations/opportunities. And finally, many felt that the continuing whirlwind surrounding a possible Andrew Bynum-for-Carmelo Anthony trade would distract the Lakers, a team that has lacked focus, determination, and intensity for many stretches of the year. But the Lakers answered all of their critics in an emphatic fashion on Thursday night by downing the Celtics 92-86. The victory in Boston is the strongest statement that we have seen thus far by the defending champs, and assures us, at least to some degree, that the team will have a part to play in this year’s NBA championship race. Here are some keys observations from tonight’s big win:

Size Matters

I wrote earlier this week that, if it were up to me, I would not give Bynum up for Melo. Tonight Bynum and the Lakers proved my point. Specifically, the Lakers beat Boston in the paint. Los Angeles outscored their nemesis 50 to 32 on the inside, led by Gasol (20) and Bynum (23). The Lakers’ length, which is their unique advantage that nobody else in the league possesses, gave the Celtics fits all night, and proved to be the difference in the end. There was a point in time when the Lakers settled for jump shots, and that’s when Boston pulled away in the first half. But, after some half time adjustments by the Zen Master, the Lakers went back to their bread and butter and pounded the rock inside (and to Kobe, too).

Size also matters on the glass, too. Besides recording a scoring advantage down low, the Lakers out-rebounded the Celtics 47 to 36. The Lakers’ rebounding advantage was no more evident than looking at the contrast between stretches of time when Bynum was on the floor versus those periods during which he was off the court. There were instances when Bynum just left the court and on the very next play Kendrick Perkins collected offensive rebounds against Pau or Odom. Combined, Pau, Bynum, and L.O. collected 31 boards.

Black Mamba Time

In the first half, Kobe only took three shots (made one of them). Through two quarters, he had 3 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, a clear message to viewers and his teammates that he wanted to get others involved first. And that he did–both Gasol and Bynum dumped 12 points apiece in the first half. But the second half belonged to Kobe, and the plan could not have worked out any better.

Kobe scored 12 points in the third quarter and another 8 points in the fourth quarter to help seal the Lakers’ victory. He looked unstoppable for those two quarters, something his opponents are all too familiar with. But not only did he dominate the second half on the offensive end, but he chipped in on the defensive end, too. He had a huge block on one of Rondo’s layup attempts, and his roving defense (aka Rondo-can’t-shoot-so-I-will-help-others-defense) caused numerous turnovers. In fact, after the game, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “Kobe won the game today with his D…he was absolutely phenomenal.”

Shannon Brown

Although Brown has had games where he’s scored more points and recorded more rebounds and assists, his performance tonight was crucial because the Lakers were desperate for a boost off the bench from somebody other than Odom. In fact, the Lakers needed quality production/minutes from anyone not named Pau, Kobe, Andrew, or Lamar. Truth is, Artest is playing terrible. Fisher is barely even recognizable out there. And Blake has no impact on the game. Add to that Luke Walton’s irrelevance and Matt Barnes’ injury and suddenly you have a really, really sad supporting cast.

But Shannon stepped up tonight in a huge way. Not only did he score 12 points on a very efficient 4-of-6 shooting night, but he played with good control and provided the spark off the bench that we are accustomed to seeing. His steal and breakaway double-clutch dunk gave the Lakers some swagger/energy that I think they have been missing for quite some time. It was Shannon’s first double-digit scoring game since January 28 and only his second since January 14. It was great to see him have impact a game outcome once again.

Conclusion

This was the best victory of the season so far. But it shouldn’t stop there. The Lakers have a tough game on a quick turn around against the Knicks tomorrow night…at Madison Square Garden. I expect that game to be incredible. Kobe loves MSG. MSG loves Kobe and the Lakers. The Knicks are relevant again and their games are an absolute delight to watch. I can’t wait.

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