New and Improved Lakers Beat Suns for the Second Time This SeasonKobe Bryant had 38 points, seven assists and five rebounds as the L.A. Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 122-115, the Lakers' second victory this season over the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the past two seasons. Bryant shot 12-20 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. Unlike the previous game between the teams, a blowout win in Phoenix, this victory is not a complete surprise because the Lakers have emerged as one of the most improved teams this season. Andrew Bynum scored a career-high 28 points on 11-13 shooting and he also had 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Derek Fisher contributed 19 points and six assists and Lamar Odom had 15 points and 14 rebounds, helping the Lakers to enjoy a 47-38 rebounding advantage. Trevor Ariza, starting in place of the injured Luke Walton, had 14 points and seven rebounds; acquiring Ariza for Maurice Evans and Brian Cook looks like a shrewd move. Steve Nash had 24 points and 14 assists, while Amare Stoudemire added 19 points and six rebounds.
Phoenix took early leads of 9-4 and 20-14 before Bryant scored eight points in less than four minutes to help the Lakers pull within 26-25 by the end of the first quarter. In previous seasons, the Lakers wanted to slow the game down against the Suns and try to pound the ball inside but the Lakers are better both offensively and defensively than they used to be so they are not afraid to get into an uptempo game with the Suns. There were several occasions when Bynum and/or Odom failed to sprint back on defense, enabling Nash to find Stoudemire or Shawn Marion for alley-oop passes, but the Lakers were also able to do some damage of their own in the transition game.
The Lakers have benefited from good bench play for the most part this season and that is very significant, because this enables Bryant to get some rest during games and then be able to take over in the fourth quarter. In the second quarter, the Lakers' bench briefly built a 37-30 lead but they were not able to sustain that margin and by the time Bryant returned to action the Lakers were only up 39-37. The Lakers outscored the Suns 37-36 overall in the quarter to tie the score at 62 by halftime. As Fisher told Michele Tafoya at halftime, the Lakers were not bothered by the fast pace but they needed to tighten up certain aspects of their defense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned this several times during the quarter, noting that the Lakers kept going under screens, enabling Nash to bury uncontested jumpers. Bynum led both teams with 16 points by halftime, while Fisher had 15 points and four assists and Bryant had 12 points and three assists. Nash led the Suns with 13 points and six assists. After ABC showed a graphic running down Bryant's career accomplishments so far--including becoming the youngest player to score 20,000 points--Van Gundy made this comment about Bryant: "How has that guy never been the regular season MVP? He's the best player in the league and has been for a while."
Bryant had nine points and two assists in the first seven minutes of the third quarter as the Lakers took a 79-76 lead. Coach Phil Jackson sat him down at the 3:52 mark, clearly hoping to not only give him nearly four minutes of rest but to also take advantage of the TV timeouts that happen at the end of each quarter. That is how he used to get extra rest for Michael Jordan--but those Chicago Bulls' teams had Scottie Pippen, who could hold down the fort with four reserves until Jordan returned to action. The Lakers don't have that luxury and within 1:40 the three point lead turned into an 85-83 deficit. This is a good demonstration of why I am not completely sold on the idea that the Lakers have instantly become a contender. Although the team has clearly improved and the bench is better than it was last year, the Lakers have a disturbing tendency to quickly squander leads. This has already cost them several games; it also causes Jackson to have to play Bryant more minutes than he would like to play him, which could lead to fatigue and/or injury. Instead of getting perhaps 10 minutes of "real-time" rest (including the TV timeouts), Bryant had to come back in with 2:12 left to settle things down--which he promptly did, scoring five points and helping the Lakers to once again build a three point lead, 92-89. It is clear that without Bryant they would not have had the lead in the first place and if Jackson had not quickly brought Bryant back then the Lakers would probably have been down six or more points going into the fourth quarter (which is what usually has happened in Suns-Lakers games in recent seasons when Bryant takes even the briefest rest).
Bryant played the entire fourth quarter, scoring 12 points and passing off for two assists as the Lakers outscored the Suns 30-26 to preserve the victory (Nash had three points and five assists in the fourth quarter). Tafoya offered a pair of interesting sideline reports; on the one hand, Coach Jackson said that the team was relying too much on Bryant to score but, on the other hand, Coach D'Antoni told his team to double-team Bryant and force anybody else to shoot because Bryant was doing so much damage. After Odom and Jordan Farmar each got their shots blocked on consecutive possessions and the Suns cut a 96-89 lead to 96-93, ABC's Mark Jackson pointedly suggested that the Lakers go back relying on Bryant to do the scoring. Bryant scored six straight points for the Lakers from the 5:15 mark until the 3:48 mark to give them their first double digit lead, 112-102. Bryant shot an excellent percentage, did not force anything and was more than willing to pass to his teammates because his teammates have shown that they are willing and able to make shots. With 1:48 left and the Lakers up 114-107, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several defenders and made a sweet one handed pass to Bynum for a layup.
That sequence basically wrapped things up and as the Lakers put the finishing touches on the win, Mark Jackson made a rather bold statement, declaring that the Lakers' roster is better than the Suns' roster "in a landslide." He never explained why he believes that to be true but that statement does not stand up to close examination. The Suns had seven double figure scorers in this game compared to five for the Lakers and the Suns' roster includes a two-time MVP (Nash), two other All-Stars (Stoudemire, Shawn Marion), a former All-Star who is playing like an All-Star this season (Grant Hill), an All-Defensive Team player (Raja Bell) and one of the top sixth men in the league (Leandro Barbosa), so a good early season start and a couple head to head regular season wins are not enough to convince me that the Lakers' roster is better than the Suns' roster. It is also worth mentioning that the Suns' bench outscored the Lakers' bench 28-8; the difference for the Lakers, as always, was Kobe Bryant--without him, the Lakers would not have been a playoff team the past couple years and without him the Lakers would have lost this game. His presence makes up for a lot of shortcomings at both ends of the court and enables everyone around him to perform better. Also, the Suns have still won 13 of the last 17 regular season games between these teams, so a larger sampling of games is needed to determine if the tide has really turned in this rivalry.
That said, there is no denying that the Lakers have improved and D'Antoni identified exactly where that improvement has taken place: "Bynum and Derek Fisher. They've got two better players than they had last time. So that's a big difference." Bynum's improvement this season is most impressive but it is important to consider two things: (1) 28 points is his career-high but if he is going to be an All-Star player then 20-plus points has to be his nightly output; (2) most of his scoring opportunities are created either by Bryant drawing double-teams or one of the guards (usually Bryant, Fisher or Farmar) throwing him lob passes. Bynum has not yet shown that he can be depended on to score consistently with his back to the basket. The addition of Fisher is huge not only because of the positive contributions he makes as a leader, a shooter, a passer and a defender but also because he took Smush Parker's place on the roster. Throughout last season, I kept mentioning that Parker was probably the worst starting point guard in the NBA and that his lapses were costing the team wins--and just look at what has happened this year: Fisher is playing a key role for the Lakers, while Parker cannot even get on the court for Miami, one of the worst teams in the league. When historians look back objectively at the 2006-07 season, they will have a hard time understanding how Bryant did not win the MVP after leading a team to the playoffs that had Smush Parker as a starting point guard and was devastated by injuries to frontcourt players Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown.
The Lakers are a team on the rise but there is still a long season to go. Let's see how the young players respond to their first taste of NBA success. Will they continue to work hard and be productive? The real test will be how Bynum, Farmar, Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and the rest of the supporting cast does down the stretch and then in the playoffs; we already know what to expect from Bryant, Odom and Fisher (as long as they stay reasonably healthy).
posted by David Friedman @ 3:57 AM