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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

No Bull: Chicago Stampedes to Fifth Straight Win

The Chicago Bulls defeated the L.A. Lakers 94-89 at the United Center on Tuesday, extending their winning streak to five. The Bulls have won 12 of their last 13 games and have long since put the controversy about Ben Wallace's headband behind them. Wallace played with a lot of energy, contributing four points, nine rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocked shots. Luol Deng led the Bulls with 23 points and 12 rebounds, while Ben Gordon added 22 points. Kobe Bryant, who averaged 37.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 6.0 apg in his last five games, simply could not find the range from the field (6-19, including 0-5 on three pointers) and ended up with 19 points, four assists and three rebounds. Kwame Brown (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Smush Parker (16 points, three steals) had solid games.

The Lakers got off to a good start, leading 26-23 after the first quarter. Deng scored 10 points and Bryant had eight. Bryant sat out the first 5:23 of the second quarter but the Lakers were able to widen their lead to 38-29. Bryant did not score after he returned to action but the Lakers still led 48-42 at halftime after Gordon's buzzer beating jump shot.

Bryant made some nice plays early in the third quarter to help the Lakers push their advantage to double digits. On one play he drove to the hoop but was stopped by a quadruple team--two Bulls created a wall in front of him and two more Bulls crossed the lane to help out. Bryant delivered a perfect skip pass across the court to Luke Walton on the left baseline, who nailed a three pointer to put the Lakers up 62-51. That play demonstrated Bryant's great value to his team--even on a night when he is not shooting well the other team's defense must account for him and this opens up opportunities for other players to get wide open shots that they could not create for themselves. Although Bryant had four assists, he made several plays like this during the game that either led to one more pass and then a basket or that led to open shots that were not converted. Later in the quarter, the Bulls had cut the margin to 65-61 when Bryant drew a double team from Ben Wallace and fed Kwame Brown for a layup and potential three point play, but Brown missed the free throw. Chicago continued to chip away and managed to tie the score at 70 by the end of the third quarter.

Bryant sat out the first 3:45 of the fourth quarter and the Bulls went ahead, 80-74. Michael Sweetney scored eight points during that run as the Lakers' interior defense fell apart at the same time that their offense all but completely stalled. Of course, the Lakers really miss the injured Lamar Odom during stretches like that. He could have provided a defensive presence and an offensive threat so that the game would not get out of hand while Bryant gets a few minutes of rest. Bryant hit two of his first three shots after checking back in, cutting the Bulls' lead to 82-78, but then he committed a couple turnovers--one on an offensive foul--and the Bulls built their lead back to 87-80. Bryant fouled out with 52 seconds left and the Lakers trailing 91-86.

The Lakers began the season with a schedule heavily laden with home games and now they will have to play a lot of games on the road without Odom. This is a crucial part of the season for the Lakers that will determine if they can grab one of the top four playoff spots--ensuring home court advantage for at least one round in the playoffs--or if they will slip to the bottom half of the postseason picture. Meanwhile, the Bulls are playing well and will be a force to reckon with in the depleted Eastern Conference.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM

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