Gasol, Bryant Lead the Way as Lakers Stampede Past the BullsPau Gasol scored a season-high 34 points on 14-21 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-109 to improve their league-leading record to 8-1. Kobe Bryant added 21 points, a team-high six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, while Andrew Bynum contributed 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Bryant twice drove to the hoop, drew the defense and then fed Gasol a behind the back pass for an easy dunk, including a first quarter move in which Bryant split the trap a la Mark Price before penetrating into the lane and passing to Gasol; Bryant also had several feeds to Gasol and Bynum that were not assists because they resulted in free throw attempts instead of made baskets.
Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 25 points and a game-high nine assists. It is obviously very early in the season but Rose has impressed me more than any other rookie so far: he can shoot, pass and rebound, his defense is adequate--particularly for such a young, inexperienced player--and he plays at his own tempo, not allowing other players to force him to slow down or speed up. Rose is very quick, handles the ball well and has already mastered his own variation of the teardrop shot used by penetrating guards as diverse as Mark Jackson and Tony Parker. Point guard is probably the toughest position to play as a rookie, so Rose's performance so far is that much more impressive.
Ben Gordon scored a highly inefficient 23 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, including 3-11 from three point range. Is his salary based on field goal attempts per minute? Gordon would actually be a great sixth man for a strong team that could control his minutes and shot selection but injuries to other players have forced him into a starting role for the Bulls and that is less than ideal because he is an undersized shooting guard who is not a great ballhandler or defender.
Gasol scored 18 of his points in the first quarter, becoming the first Laker other than Kobe Bryant to have that many points in a quarter since Shaquille O'Neal scored 18 points in a quarter in a March 21, 2003 game versus Boston. The Lakers exploited the obvious size advantage they enjoyed with Gasol and Bynum matching up against Drew Gooden and Joakim Noah; Gasol scored 13 of the Lakers' first 15 points. Bryant did not score a point in the first quarter and despite Gasol's outburst the Lakers only led 30-29, a score that is not good for L.A. for two reasons: the Lakers gave up far too many points and they were only up by one point at home against an inferior team. The Lakers played poor defense on several possessions--giving up wide open jumpers and, even worse, easy layups--and they also blew several point blank scoring opportunities at the front of the rim; if they had been a little sharper the score could easily have been 40-21 in their favor.
Sometimes it is hard to figure out what--if anything--Lamar Odom is thinking about. He had good boxscore numbers (10 points, eight rebounds, five assists) but fouled out after only playing 22 minutes. At the start of the second quarter he missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, made the putback--and then grabbed the ball and shot another layup, earning a delay of game warning. That did not have an effect on the outcome of the game but could have been a critical gaffe if it happened in the second half of a close contest; a second delay of game call is a one shot technical foul. Also, teams like to preserve that first delay of game call in order to use it to get a look at the opposing team's inbounds play late in the game and then stop the action before the inbounder passes the ball. Odom complained about every foul called on him even though most if not all of the fouls were obviously correct. This is why the Lakers are so much better off having him in a reserve role as opposed to perpetuating the dream that he could be Bryant's Pippen-like sidekick; the more that you have to rely on Odom on a game to game basis, the more you are going to be disappointed but as a reserve player the Lakers don't need as much out of him and on those occasions when he breaks out with a 20 point, 10 rebound game it will be icing on the cake.
Bryant took his usual rest at the start of the second quarter and when he returned to action at the 8:37 mark the score was tied at 36. In less than three minutes, he scored eight points as the Lakers went on a 15-2 run. The Lakers pushed their lead to 57-40 after Bryant's behind the back pass to Gasol for a dunk but then Gordon and Rose helped the Bulls close the half with a 16-4 run to pull within 61-56 at halftime.
At the start of the third quarter, Bryant again asserted control over the game, hitting a jumper and a three pointer to make the score 65-56. After Gasol missed a jumper, Bryant stormed into the lane and tipped the ball toward the basket; he missed the mark but kept the ball alive long enough for Bynum to reel it in and convert a three point play. Lakers' announcer Stu Lantz noted that Bryant receives no boxscore credit for that kind of hustle but Bynum would not have scored without Bryant's extra effort (a glance at the official play by play sheet actually shows that Bryant was credited with an offensive rebound and a missed field goal attempt). It is still early in the season but so far we are seeing that two of the themes that I repeatedly mentioned in the offseason were right on target: (1) Phil Jackson is not going to play Bynum, Gasol and Odom together at the same time because none of those players is a legit small forward; (2) Bynum is not a franchise-level center who creates his own offense but rather a young, athletic big man who rebounds and defends but whose offensive game at this stage mostly consists of catching lob passes, scoring on putbacks and occasionally using his developing repertoire of post moves. Bynum's minutes are up slightly compared to last season but his scoring average, field goal percentage and rebounding average have each declined (his shotblocking and turnover numbers have improved, though the latter can mainly be attributed to him not being relied on to do much more than dunk the ball). He is still rounding into shape after recovering from the injury that cost him the second half of last season but it should be obvious that he is not, as some laughably suggested, the best or most valuable player on the team.
After that initial Bryant-fueled burst to start the third quarter, the Lakers only managed to add three more points to their lead, enjoying a 90-74 advantage going into the final 12 minutes. Bryant was on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter and when the score reached 97-78 it seemed like his services might not be required for the rest of the night--but even with Gasol and Bynum on the court, the reserves were not able to maintain that comfortable margin. The Bulls cut the lead to 107-97 by the 3:50 mark--a very workable margin at that stage--and Bryant was forced to shed his warmups and finish the job. He came into the game with the Lakers on offense and seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and coolly drained a three pointer to let the Bulls know that playtime was over. The Bulls never cut the margin into single digits and a couple minutes later Bryant was able to go back to the bench. When a star player has sat out the first eight-plus minutes of the final quarter, you can be sure that his coach did not want to have to put him back in the game--but Phil Jackson understood just how tenuous the situation had become. I know that some people think that this Lakers' team would be very good even without Bryant but if you believe that then you need to focus more intently on two things: (1) How exactly Gasol, Bynum and others get wide open shots when Bryant is in the game; (2) how often large Lakers' leads shrink to dangerous levels when Bryant is on the bench. According to the definition of "clutch" used by "stats gurus" (less than two minutes remaining in a game that is closer than five points), Bryant's fourth quarter three pointer was not "clutch"--but that may have been the biggest possession of the game. If Bryant had not been brought back in and the Lakers failed to score, the Bulls would have been very much alive and would have had a ton of momentum. Although the Lakers have the best record in the NBA, several of those wins are directly attributable to Bryant either hitting a key shot like that and/or going on a scoring run at a key juncture--and Bryant's ability to consistently be productive at those important moments clearly demonstrates that he still has the same skill set that earned him last year's MVP and that, on lesser teams, enabled him to set numerous records while winning back to back scoring titles.
Interestingly, although Gasol was easily the highest scoring player in this game, his plus/minus number was just +1, while Bryant's plus/minus number was a game-high +22; incidentally, we can also see the limitations of looking at unadjusted plus/minus numbers by considering the fact that Vladimir Radmanovic--who was nearly invisible while scoring five points on 1-4 shooting--had the third best plus/minus number (+16) just because most of his minutes coincided with Bryant's. What Bryant has done so far this season is just lay in the cut, so to speak, as a scorer; he's not trying to go out and get 40 or 50 points and often he is hardly even attempting a shot in the first quarter as he surveys how the opposing team is defending him and sees which of his teammates may have the hot hand--but if and when things get tight or the Lakers hit a lull then Bryant drops about 10 points in a brief run, like a sniper picking off several targets in rapid succession and then calling it a day. I'm not sure which role is more difficult--sustaining production over a whole game to score 40 points (but also knowing that even if you miss some shots you are going to get up 25 or 30 attempts) or having the ability to seemingly turn your scoring off and on at will.
The Lakers played nine games in 23 days to start the season but will play six games in an 11 day stretch that started on Tuesday, so the upcoming week and a half will be an excellent test for them. They suffered their first loss of the season on Friday night versus Detroit and the most disturbing aspect of that game was how the Pistons pushed the Lakers' big men around, including a 10 point, 10 rebound performance by Kwame Brown, the former Lakers' starting center who has been thrust into a temporary starting role for Detroit due to injuries. Brown outplayed Bynum and Rasheed Wallace had his way with Gasol in a game that surely reminded Lakers' fans of how the Celtics overpowered Gasol in the NBA Finals; no one can question that Gasol is a very skilled player but he still has to prove that he has the necessary mental and physical toughness to be a key contributor on a championship level team--I had thought that he passed that test last year versus Utah and San Antonio in the Western Conference playoffs but Gasol had a setback against Boston.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM