I guess Kings head coach Reggie Theus felt that he’d best make a major switch in order to compete with the Lakers Sunday night at STAPLES, because his starting lineup is brand spanking new. This is due, in part, to injuries to best player Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia, but also to the solid play Sacramento’s gotten from second-year center Spencer Hawes and rookie Jason Thompson, whom I spoke to in the previous blog entry. Alas, Thompson (a power forward) is starting at the three, while Hawes joins Brad Miller (the usual starting center) in the front court. We’ll see how these matchups workout shortly…
Lakers: D.J. Mbenga and Sun Yue
Kings: Francisco Garcia and Kevin Martin
Lakers: Same as always … Fish, Kobe, Vladi, Pau and Bynum
Kings: Beno Udrih, John Salmons, Jason Thompson, Brad Miller and Spencer Hawes
Pau Gasol scores the first basket of every game at STAPLES (or so it would seem) and tonight was no different for a Lakers’ team wearing white jerseys and shorts as has become Sunday tradition at home. The Kings, sporting a new-look lineup if not jerseys, had trouble matching up with L.A. early, and watched as Bryant opened 4-for-4 from the field and Radmanovic – taking advantage of Thompson – collected two boards, two assists and a rainbow three to push the Lakers to a 17-10 lead. Note that Lamar Odom checked in pretty early, at the 8:10 mark for Bynum* (three rebounds, one assist, one foul) More importantly, Jack’s back in his usual seat, and the pregame brisket was succulent.
*I learned later that Bynum checked out because he was bleeding.
Bynum checked quickly back in (6:00 mark) and immediately put back a missed Bryant layup to make it 19-12 good guys. Now, obviously, this is a game the Lakers should win on paper. As in, it shouldn’t even be close based on the talent on the floor … If you disagree, you’d put money on McLovin landing a real-life date with Kate Bosworth (for no money … like she couldn’t receive money). But it’s never a guarantee in the league, as witnessed by Minnesota’s 106-80 beat down AT Detroit today. I’m trying to convince myself of that, anyway, because the longer I stare at the statistics and game notes for tonight, the harder it is to picture anything but a blowout.
Your first major highlight play came courtesy of a Chris Mihm alley-oop to Brian Shaw, which was pretty surprising to see considering Shaw’s an assistant coach. That made it 28-23 with 1:30 or so remaining. Or, it could have been a pretty Kobe pass to Odom for a jam after Bryant drew Lamar’s man away from him.
Obvious favorite play of the quarter: Sasha Vujacic stole the ball with 2.9 seconds to go, streaked up the floor, pulled up from 25 feet and nailed a triple to send L.A. into the second up 32-27, taking any wind that may have existed in the the sails of an 8-3 Kings run.
Both teams shot well in the period, with L.A. making 12-of-22 (54.5 percent) and Sac making 12-of-23 (52.2 percent). The scoring discrepancy came from the Lakers getting to the line seven times and hitting three threes to two foul attempts and one made three from the Kings. J-Thompson was solid, we should note: six points, three boards, three steals, an assist and a block. By the way, whom do you think would make more free throws: George Lopez (sitting courtside) or Thompson (64 percent on the season)?
The Kings, boosted by some extra sugar in the after-quarter Gatorade (OK that wasn’t funny) scored the first nine points of the quarter before the Lakers woke up and went on a 6-0 to regain the lead. Moments later, after Bobby Brown (not the one you’re thinking of) dropped a dime to get the Kings to the way-too-high 42-point mark at the 5:53 mark, L.A. took a timeout and came back with Kobe and Fisher. It’s fair to say that L.A. could be playing much better defense at this point, but seem content with the fact that the Kings are horrible defensively. Now, I do have some substance behind that Kings knock: Sacramento Bee reporter Sam Amick told me before the game that coming into the season, all the Kings were talking about was implementing a higher-tempo offense (that includes variations of the triangle, by the way). Last season, Amick said all the talk was at the defensive end, and it paid off as an overachieving team managed to go 38-44 despite inferior talent in a terribly deep Western Conference. Funny that all the talk in Lakers land has been about defense, but let’s be careful not to chalk team records up to the mindset put out to the press as opposed to a big difference in talent.
Boos rang out in STAPLES at the 3:24 mark not because the Lakers were up only 51-46, but because Brad Miller chopped at Ariza’s head like the Florida State Seminoles mascot after a game-winning TD at the Florida Gator’s Swamp. Replays confirmed the aggressive to quite aggressive hack, which had Phil Jackson quickly off the bench arguing for a flagrant. This begs the question: whom would be more accurate in a chopping contest: George Lopez or Brad Miller? Or Jason Thompson?
Remember earlier in the season when Radmanovic wasn’t shooting the three very well in L.A.’s first nine games (11-of-30). Since then, he’s 9-of-11, including his third successful bomb in three tries tonight that made it 58-50. Furthermore, 20 of Vladi’s 26 made shots this season are from three, and he’s not coming close to the rim right now (all net). In related news, Vladi’s wearing some really cool red glasses tonight that I think should earn him at least a small role in a gangster film. OK, not a small role, but at least a spot as an extra.
The half closed as Salmons answered Odom’s fourth bucket on four shots and Farmar hit 1-of-2 free throws to make it a 61-52 margin. Both teams continued to shoot the ball well in a game where, frankly, defensive intensity wasn’t at a premium. The Lakers did control the glass (23-17), while both teams turned the ball over 12 times. As the teams walked off the court, I watched some on-court interaction between Barry Bonds and longtime reporter Jim Gray. Do you think Bonds can hoop? He could definitely outshoot George Lopez from the charity stripe. What would be more fun to watch is Lopez throwing Bonds BP for the halftime show. Sure, he’d have to use NERF balls so as not to kill anyone, but it’d still be fun to watch. Or whiffle balls … Could he put one into the upper deck? If he did, would fans demand a drug test? I wouldn’t.
L.A. was almost as poor in the third quarter’s first two minutes as it was in the second, allowing the Kings to score five-straight points and cut the lead to four.
Then Vladi rained in from three again. I was about to make some kind of hyperbolic statement about his stroke being so pure that he won’t miss again and all that before he missed a possession later. Serves me right. Then, before I was about to wonder where Gasol’s been tonight, he drew a foul and made one-of-two free throws a minute before grabbing an offensive board and dunking to put L.A. up 76-69. He’d taken seven shots in 20 minutes prior and grabbed just two boards, in part because Bynum had been occupying the low block as Hawes had pulled Gasol out to the perimeter.
After a timeout, Gasol was at it again in the lane, this time converting a turnaround jumper plus the foul to give him 12 points, tied with Vladi and trailing just Kobe’s 14. While L.A.’s lead was only eight, they seemed pretty firmly in control even at that point, before Fish removed any doubt with a triple to make it 82-71. Next came an Odom swat and a Vujacic three to put Sacramento on full life support.
Bobby Brown’s pretty good, by the way. Not only did he headline the pop group “New Edition,” but he managed to score 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting alongside five assists in three quarters of action. Salmons was also effective offensively with 24 points, but the Kings were brutal on D.
The third quarter ended with the Lakers up 96-80 after a 34-point quarter, after which I was reminded that six Lakers, including all five starters, were in double figures. Bryant had 18, Gasol 14 and Vladi 12 while Odom, Fisher and Bynum all scored 10. Threatening to join them were Ariza (eight), Farmar (eight) and Vujacic (6).
Of primary interest to me in a fourth quarter that doesn’t seem like much of a contest is whether the Lakers can get nine guys in double-figures. Farmar became the seventh early in the quarter, meaning we need two points from Ariza and four from Vujacic. To their credit, Sac’s youngsters haven’t given up, even cutting the lead to nine at the 8:11 mark, but one has to think L.A. was never threatened, content to simply run back down the court and score again (in that case, on an Odom jumper).
Then again … A Bobby Jackson and-1 at the 6:17 mark exposed once again what’s been lax Lakers defense for much of the night, and this time drew the lead all the way down to four at 105-101. Should that have been worrisome? Not really. To make sure, Kobe and Pau checked back in.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the place L.A. buried the game was in the defensive half court. Bryant, Fish, Ariza, Odom and Gasol locked down the paint, pressured the perimeter and generally didn’t give Sac anything good to look at, and the Lakers quickly opened the lead back up to 10 with a 6-0 run. Some might get upset that the Lakers allowed an inferior team to stick around for so long, but to me, it’s so early in the season that you simply don’t worry about it. They shut it down when they had to, defensively, and eased up a bit when they had the luxury of doing so thanks to a big lead. But easing up at times defensively really shouldn’t be a concern as much as a reality of an 82-game season.
Ariza became the eighth Lakers player to hit double-digits in scoring after a beautiful up-and-under layup that gave the home team a 113-101 edge with two minutes and change remaining. All-over-the-place Ariza also pitched in 11 boards, five assists and two steals for the contest, combining with 33 solid minutes from Odom (14, seven and three) in a solid bench effort.
So that was that, a 118-108 victory that was really never close, even with the Kings making a few spirited runs. L.A.’s 11-1 with New Jersey, Dallas, Toronto, Indiana and Philly on the horizon.