Lakers Rally from 19 Point Deficit, Beat Suns Without KobeThe Phoenix Suns looked unbeatable in their season opener versus the L.A. Lakers--for a quarter. Then, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and the Lakers' bench led a comeback that turned a 39-20 deficit into a rousing 114-106 victory. The Lakers accomplished this with Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench in street clothes. Bryant had hoped to play but is still not confident that his knee can completely withstand the rigors of back to back games. So, rather than coming back and then having to sit out, the plan now is for Bryant to wait a little longer so that he can return at full strength. Odom finished with 34 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals. Bynum, making the first regular season start of his young career, had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists in only 24 minutes; he displayed an array of low post moves, fought on the boards with great tenacity and confidently hit cutters with perfect bounce passes. Leandro Barbosa had 30 points and four assists for the Suns. Steve Nash scored 15 points with 13 assists but shot only 6-15 from the field. Amare Stoudemire returned to action but did not start, only played 12 minutes and finished with six points, one rebound and one blocked shot.
The Suns made their first nine field goal attempts and seemed poised to run the Lakers right off of the court. When Nash fed Stoudemire for a one hand dunk at the 6:23 mark in the first quarter Phoenix led 23-12. Stoudemire's jump hook off of another Nash pass put Phoenix on top 30-14 with 4:39 remaining. A few minutes later, Barbosa's jumper put the Suns up 39-20 and it seemed like the Lakers were headed for the same kind of blowout loss that the Heat suffered in the first game of TNT's doubleheader. The Lakers closed out the first quarter with a modest 6-2 run to trail 41-26.
The Lakers chipped away at the Suns' lead throughout the second quarter and only trailed 58-53 at the half. Phoenix still has the same problems that it had last year: (1) as quickly as the Suns can build a lead with great offense they can squander it with cold shooting and poor defense; (2) the Suns are extremely vulnerable defensively in the paint. Once the Suns stopped making 100% of their shots and the Lakers began attacking them in the post it was lights out. The Lakers outscored the Suns 66-34 in the paint, continuing the "Inside Man" strategy that they employed so effectively until game seven of last year's playoff series between these teams. They took command of the game early in the third quarter: Maurice Evans hit a pull up jumper, Luke Walton scored on a spin move and then again with a post move and the Lakers led 59-58. The teams traded baskets early in the quarter but then the Lakers went on a 9-0 run, including a gorgeous post move by Bynum and a three pointer by Odom. The Lakers led 87-79 at the end of the third quarter.
Jordan Farmar made a layup, Vladimir Radmanovic hit a jumper and Lamar Odom completed a three point play to push the margin to 94-81 early in the fourth quarter. Leandro Barbosa scored 16 points in the final stanza to keep the Suns at least somewhat in contact but Phoenix simply had no answer for the Lakers' frontline of Odom, Bynum and Walton. Free agent pickup Evans also looks like he will be a valuable contributor for the Lakers this year.
People who don't know a lot about basketball will look at this game and say that it shows how much better the Lakers are without Kobe Bryant. In reality, it shows nothing of the kind. Last year's Lakers looked terrible whenever Bryant was out of the game and lost both games that he missed due to suspension. This year's Lakers are a different and much improved team. Bynum's game has grown by leaps and bounds, free agent signings Evans and Radmanovic have improved the team's depth and Farmar looks like an excellent draft pick. These Lakers are a solid team without Bryant and, when Bryant returns, they have a good shot at finishing in the top four in the West, as I wrote in my Western Conference Preview. Am I reading too much into one game? No, because the things that Bynum did were not unusual or "lucky." He now has a solid post game on offense and demonstrated passing skills that were not at all evident last season. He won't put up 18 and 9 every game but he will be a factor that other teams have to deal with and it will be even tougher to contend with him on the block when Kobe is back on the wing wreaking havoc.
Bynum's development could really bring Bryant's career full circle. A decade ago, Bryant was a young player coming into the NBA straight out of high school and Shaquille O'Neal was a veteran player who felt like he had a lot to prove--namely, that he could take a team to an NBA title. O'Neal and Bryant never seemed to connect off of the court, but Bryant worked hard on his game and the two of them won three titles together. Now, Bryant is a veteran who wants to prove that he can win an NBA title without O'Neal and Bynum is a young player coming into the NBA straight out of high school. So, how will this story end? Will Bryant accept Bynum's inevitable mistakes and growing pains with more patience than O'Neal did with him? Can Bynum develop into a top level player before Bryant's skills begin to decline?
posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM