Lakers Continue to Pillage the Eastern ConferenceThe L.A. Lakers' supposed death march through the Eastern Conference is actually reviving their season; they improved to 5-2 on their nine game road trip with a 104-94 win in Miami. Kobe Bryant had an extremely efficient 33 points on 10-15 field goal shooting, adding five assists and some excellent defense versus Dwyane Wade, who finished with 19 points and nine assists but shot 7-17 from the field and committed nine turnovers. Lamar Odom added 15 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, once again tantalizing fans and making them wonder why he does not play that way consistently. Pau Gasol had 12 points and seven rebounds. Shawn Marion contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots in his Miami debut.
The Lakers are 3-1 since Gasol joined the team. During the ABC telecast, Hubie Brown, who coached Gasol in Memphis, described his former player as "an outstanding athlete who is extremely cerebral and who has great hands. He is an excellent passer. He's a wonderful team player to play with because he will give the ball up but at the end of the game he gives them a guy who can score the ball." All of the attributes that Brown mentioned have been on display during Gasol's brief run with the Lakers. His ability to score down the stretch of games is particularly significant because that means that opposing teams can no longer simply load up their defenses to stop Bryant. Miami cut a 17 point fourth quarter lead to 96-90 but Bryant and Gasol stemmed the tide with back to back field goals; Bryant's turnaround jumper from the right block made the score 98-90 and a couple possessions later Gasol's hook shot from the left block put the Lakers ahead 100-94.
Bryant showed no ill effects from the dislocated right pinkie finger that is still being taped to his ring finger. He made a number of spectacular plays throughout the game, including a driving fast break dunk early in the contest and a sweeping left handed hook shot that put the Lakers up 96-79 with 5:52 to go in the game. Bryant is probably the only right handed shooting guard who not only can shoot a left handed hook but is confident enough to do it in a game. Brown repeatedly emphasized that the Lakers rank among the league leaders in scoring and assists. Bryant is the team's primary playmaker in addition to being its best scorer, so he clearly sets the tone of unselfishness that permeates throughout the roster. Brown and Jeff Van Gundy are two analysts who routinely point out that Bryant consistently makes the right pass out of double team situations in order to create open shots for his teammates, whether Bryant gets credited for assists on such plays or merely gets the "hockey assist" by making a pass that starts a chain reaction of ball movement that breaks down the opposing team's defense.
Wade has had some high scoring games against the Lakers before--usually as a result of atrocious pick and roll defense by Lakers' big men--but that was not the case this time. It is not often that Wade tries to break down Bryant in a one on one situation--and this game offered a couple examples why. On the final Miami possession of the third quarter, Wade operated in a 1-4 set against Bryant, who completely stymied him at every turn, ultimately forcing a traveling violation. As Brown put it, "Give Kobe a lot of credit. He stayed with all of the changing of hands, the crossover--he played it beautifully." In the NBA, great offensive players almost always have the advantage in one on one situations, which is why so many teams use the 1-4 set--one player dribbling at the top of the key, two players on each wing waiting to receive a pass for an open shot if their man double teams the dribbler--to get an open shot at the end of quarters. Near the end of the game, Bryant cleanly picked Wade's pocket and stole the ball from him while Wade was dribbling. The way that Bryant accepts the challenge of guarding the other team's best perimeter player sets a great example for the rest of the Lakers.
Although Miami lost, the Heat seem to be energized by the addition of Marion, which says as much about the departed Shaquille O'Neal as it does about Marion. O'Neal played a vital role in helping Miami to win the 2006 championship but he really did not do much for the team after that and the Heat are fortunate to acquire Marion for him. Whether or not O'Neal turns out to be the missing piece for the Phoenix Suns, it is clear that his time in Miami had more than run its course.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM