If you just look at the score of the Los Angeles Lakers-Portland Trail Blazers game the other night – 96-83 – you’d think, oh the Lakers routed the Blazers.
The Brandon Roy-less (sprained right ankle) Trail Blazers played with an urgency befitting a team in freefall in the ultra-tough Western Conference. After going 17-1 in one stretch of games, in the following 22 games the Trail Blazers went 7-15, which includes their most-recent 1-8 slide. Portland head coach Nate McMillan can’t possibly like what’s happening with his team lately but this type of roller-coaster ride is to be expected from his young, young team.
Portland ran out to a 15-point first quarter lead. LA responded by erasing that deficit, only to see the Blazers end the first half with another run to lead 51-44. The Lakers looked a bit weary. Kobe Bryant played facilitator in the first two quarters, scoring only eight points but dishing out six dimes. His supporting cast, though, missed open shots, turned the ball over, lacked offensive movement and played lackluster defense.
According to the local Lakers commentators, at halftime Kobe lit into his teammates for their first half sleep walk. Bryant informed the Baby Lakers that Portland was playing the game like it was the playoffs and the only way to win the game was to match the Blazers’ intensity. Bryant said this is playoff basketball and this is how it’s going to be the rest of the season, so the team had better get used to it.
Los Angeles responded with 23-14 third quarter and a 29-18 fourth quarter. Though they did not get clicking offensively until the final quarter, the Lakers defense, led by the point guard combination of Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, shut down Blazers PGs Steve Blake and Jarrett Jack. Farmar and Vujacic consistently forced their opposing guards to begin the offense too far out on the court and a few seconds later in the shot clock. The minor boost in intensity led to rushed shots, poor shot selection and imbalance on the boards as LaMarcus Aldridge was forced to step out for too many late in the clock jumpers from around the free throw line.
This is a sign the young Lakers do get “it.” They appear to understand that defense can carry them through shooting slumps and even aid in getting the offense easy shots that act to re-establish shooting rhythm. Bryant ended with 30 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. On a night when starting point guard Derek Fisher had an off game (0-4 shooting, two points) Farmar had a career-high 21 points on 8-10 shooting while Vujacic heated up in the fourth quarter an pitched in with 12 points and five boards.
Bryant, Farmar and Vujacic accounted for 62 of the Lakers 96 points, 45 coming in the second half. Their play allowed Lamar Odom, who was saddled with foul trouble in the first half, get into his flow and end up dominating his position by pulling down a team-high 11 rebounds.
It is a very good sign for the young Lakers’ playoff future when their young point guards can play fearlessly enough to more than compensate for Fisher’s off performance, and to free Bryant by keeping the floor spread out of fear of Farmar and Vujacic knocking down open jumpers.
The win was LA’s 40th and allowed them to stay atop the Western Conference overall standings.