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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lakers Kick off Eastern Road Trip With 103-91 Win in Chicago

Kobe Bryant is still laboring as a result of the groin injury that he suffered during Friday's loss to Golden State but with more than a little help from his friends the Lakers defeated the Bulls 103-91 in Chicago. Sasha Vujacic led six double figure scorers for the Lakers with 19 points, shooting 6-10 from the field. Bryant had 18 points on 7-19 shooting. He started out 3-10 in the first half, then made his first four shots in the third quarter before cooling off again. Bryant also had six rebounds, two assists, three steals and one blocked shot; his +13 plus/minus rating was the third best on the team, trailing the +18 efforts of both Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (Vujacic's plus/minus rating was +6). Odom had 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds, including 10 boards in the first half, while Bynum overcame a slow start offensively to finish with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Luol Deng led Chicago with a game-high 26 points. The Bulls outshot the Lakers .481 to .430 but committed more turnovers (18-13) and grabbed fewer rebounds (52-41). The Lakers also went to the free throw line more often (28-17) and converted those opportunities at a greater rate (.821-.706).

The Chicago announcers claimed that the Bulls played with energy but if that is the case then I'd hate to see what this team looks like when it does not play with energy; the rebounding, turnovers and general lack of aggressiveness (as suggested by the paucity of free throw attempts) all speak to mental and physical lethargy. Ben Wallace did not have a single rebound in the first half and he ended up with two points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Ben Gordon scored eight points on 3-9 shooting. Although the game was close most of the way, I doubt that any seasoned NBA viewer who watched this contest really believed that the Bulls were going to win; the Bulls' play just lacked direction, purpose--"oomph," for lack of a better term. Consider this sequence from a fast break opportunity in the second quarter: forward Tyrus Thomas had the ball at midcourt on the right wing, with point guard Chris Duhon in the middle and forward Andres Nocioni on the left wing. The correct--and obvious--play is to pass the ball to Duhon, who should dribble to the foul line, read the defense and either shoot a pullup jumper, pass to one of the wings or go all the way to the hoop if there is an opening. Instead, Thomas tried an impossible crosscourt bounce pass to Nocioni that went sailing out of bounds. If I ever put together a DVD titled "How Not to Play Fundamentally Correct Basketball," that footage will be the first exhibit. Later in the game, the Bulls also showed that they could not inbound the ball against a basic press without committing a turnover. What has happened to this team in the past six months is just bizarre, because during last year's playoffs the Bulls swept the defending champion Heat and even battled the Pistons for a minute before being eliminated. I keep waiting for the light to come on in Chicago but maybe it never is going to happen for the Bulls this year.

The news is much more pleasant for the Lakers. Bryant's nagging injury is a bit of a concern but assuming that he will heal up sooner rather than later the forecast for this team looks good. Odom is playing solid basketball, Bynum's game has vastly improved in all areas and the bench is a positive factor on most nights (not necessarily the same guys each time, but the group as a whole).

I've noticed one hitch in Bryant's game this season, something that predates his injury; previously, whenever he picked up his dribble and pump faked most defenders either fouled him or got off balance enough that he could attempt a shot. Now, defenders are staying on the ground, leaving Bryant nowhere to go since he has already used up his dribble; that happened to Bryant a few times against Chicago. He is an intelligent player, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to this.

The Lakers led 49-45 at halftime. Bryant and Vujacic each had 10 points. NBA TV's Frank Isola commented, "Kobe is not 100% yet with that groin injury. He's playing--and I think that a lot of other guys would take a week off--but this is Kobe Bryant, who loves to be out there." Despite Bryant's brief scoring burst early in the third quarter, the Bulls made a little run to tie the score at 58 before a Bryant turnaround jumper at the 7:26 mark put the Lakers up, 60-58. Those would be the last points that Bryant scored (he sat out the start of the fourth quarter, like he does in most games) but he found other ways to contribute: he got all three of his steals in the fourth quarter and the Lakers scored on the ensuing possession each time, including one sequence when Bryant stole the ball from Kirk Hinrich and flipped an underhanded outlet pass to Odom, who streaked ahead of the pack for a fast break dunk. The Lakers also used Bryant as a screener in the halfcourt offense, something that they did in the Warriors game as well. One time, Bryant's screen freed up Jordan Farmar, a defender slid over and Farmar lobbed an alley oop to Bynum for a dunk; another time, Farmar got loose and made a three pointer. Using a great scorer like Bryant as a screener is a good tactic because the defense does not dare leave him unattended.

After the game, Isola declared, "People talk about leading by example. That fact that Kobe Bryant--who I think is the elite player in the league--is willing to go out there when he is not 100% sends the right kind of message to his entire team...The bottom line is when they throw the ball up he is ready to play, he is always ready to compete and I think his teammates feed off of that." Bryant wants his teammates to care as much and work as hard as he does. Just like he did last summer with Team USA, Bryant sets the example in practice and during games and the rest of his team is following suit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM

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