Before Monday’s Martin Luther King Day special between the Lakers and Cavaliers, TNT’s Kenny Smith openly wondered if LeBron James would try and make a statement that he’s now the league’s best player, and right in Kobe Bryant’s house.
Despite dislocating his finger early in the first quarter while guarding James, Bryant* had an answer for the Jet: Not yet.
*X-rays taken after the game were negative, and Bryant said he won’t miss any time.
It wasn’t so much Bryant’s 20 points (22 attempts), 12 assists or six boards that outshined LeBron’s 23 points (25 attempts), four assists and nine boards. Rather, it was Kobe’s defensive effort on James on one side of the floor and playmaking at the other pushed the Lakers to their best energy output since Christmas Day’s victory over Boston.
Captain Obvious knows that when the Lakers are playing that hard, they’re extremely tough to beat, as witnessed by a 56-38 second half edge that turned a one-point halftime deficit into a 17-point victory over the team that had possessed the NBA’s best record.
“We had an edge tonight and our defense stepped up a little bit the third quarter, a bit on the fourth,” said Phil Jackson. “As far as outside shots, defense worked well for our team. We did a good job of keeping them on the perimeter, keeping them off the line the first three quarters.”
That “edge” Jackson described came in part due to the physical nature of a game that was largely whistle free, as both teams were allowed to bang – and bang the Lakers did (the crowd was particularly pleased with Andrew Bynum’s five personal fouls). As a result, L.A. outscored Cleveland 42-28 in the paint, with Cleveland being forced to primarily take outside shots. Of course, that’s at least in part due to the absence of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs’ only true low post threat. Yet and still, Cleveland had won 7-of-10 games without Big Z, including a 98-83 pounding of Boston last week.
Click below the jump for your numbers.
Alas, with Bryant providing the inspiration, L.A. got notable contributions from nearly every player, which we’ll highlight in a different version of the numbers:
With his minutes mercifully cut to 34 after Fish had been playing at least 40 most nights in January, he contributed 11 points, five dimes, a steal and two rebounds on 5-of-12 shooting on this night. Fisher also hit the game’s biggest momentum-changing shot, nailing a contested 23-footer as the shot clock wore down with 3:11 remaining in the fourth to halt an 11-0 Cavs run that had cut L.A.’s 18-point lead to just seven.
As alluded to above, it wasn’t so much Kobe’s 20 and 12, but his outstanding defense on LeBron and his will to win that seemed to carry L.A. through the victory. It’s also a credit to his teammates for hitting the shots off his passes that encouraged his playmaking, giving Bryant at least 10 assists in three straight games. He was clearly struggling with the pain in his finger, which after the game he described as “horrible.” But it sure didn’t stop him.
Vladi played nine second half minutes before ceding to Ariza late in the third quarter, but managed not only to hit the three that put L.A. on top for good in the third, but also collect two steals that highlighted L.A.’s 26-16 quarter. His shooting touch seems to be fully back, which is no small fact for the Lakers.
The epitome of efficiency, Gasol nailed 11-of-13 shots for 22 points, and added 12 rebounds in 35 minutes of action. His biggest bucket came with 2:42 remaining, when Odom, Bryant and Pau ran a play that Odom said worked often in the Finals last season: Bryant passed out of a high double-team from Cleveland to Odom at the top of the key, who spun and found a backdoor-cutting Pau for the dunk and a 95-85 lead.
Bynum’s presence on the game was perhaps most notable when he was on the bench with five fouls, because after the Lakers had basically shut down the paint and by effect, Cleveland’s offense, the Cavs went on an 11-0 run as soon as Bynum took a seat with 7:19 remaining in the game. Eight of those points came at the rim, where the Cavs had managed just 20 points throughout the rest of the game. ‘Drew was also effective on offense, making 6-of-10 shots for 14 points with six rebounds and a block.
In 31 minutes, Odom managed to grab 10 rebounds, amass a team-leading three blocks and score eight points on 4-of-10 shooting. He added two assists and a steal, and was very effective both on and off the ball defensively. Odom’s beauty as a player is that no matter how much focus or emphasis his team’s putting on him, he finds ways to contribute effectively. That’s why he’s among the league’s leading adjusted +/- players.
How many fourth quarter steals does Ariza have this season? Add three more tonight, including two of paramount importance on James that occurred on back-to-back possessions while guarding LeBron. The first steal produced Ariza’s alley-oop jam off Bryant’s pass, and the second Bryant’s left-handed fastbreak dunk that put L.A. up 91-73, its biggest lead of the game. Ariza finished with 10 points, four boards, two dimes and those four thefts.
Perhaps more than any other player, Vujacic maximized his playing time, making his first four triples before finally missing one in 21 minutes of action. Vujacic added two free throws to finish with 14 points, two boards, two assists, a steal and a block. Two of his threes came in the first quarter, the second with 3.1 seconds left to put L.A. up a point after it had trailed throughout the period.
In other numbers news, L.A. shot 52.4 percent to Cleveland’s 43.0 percent, made 10 threes to eight from the Cavs, turned the ball over 15 times to the Cavs’ 14 (but only four times in the second half) and tossed 27 assists to only 19 from Cleveland.
Next up for the Lakers is a “road” game against the Clippers on Wednesday.