“This team certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt until the playoffs are over.”
- Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak
Kupchak’s statement, addressing a question about his level of concern after a tough 5-game road trip, came at the close of his pregame press conference that featured the best, if expected, kind of news Lakers fans could have received on Friday: Kobe Bryant will wear a Lakers’ jersey at least through the 2013-14 season.
After discussing Kobe’s 3-year extension in detail, Kupchak used the phrase “very concerned” to describe his thoughts on L.A.’s recent play that culminated in losses to New Orleans and Atlanta.
Then came his vote of confidence.
After all, the Lakers are still the league’s most talented team; they still have Kobe; they still have the an unmatched trio of skilled big men (though one, Andrew Bynum, remains out with a strained Achilles); they still have the game’s greatest coach; and, oh yeah, they’re the champs.
And with a resounding and dominant 106-92 win over one of the league’s hottest teams in the Utah Jazz, the Lakers showed why that benefit of the doubt should remain by beginning what they hope is a strong final push into the playoffs.
“We got off to a good start and played the kind of basketball that we’d like to see us play at home, with some defensive stops and some run offs and things that happened good for us,” said Phil Jackson.
The effort was led by Lamar Odom, fantastic throughout the evening with a season-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting (including 3-of-3 from 3-point range) alongside 10 rebounds (and despite foul trouble), and Pau Gasol, who was an assist shy of a triple-double with 14 points, 16 rebounds and a season-high nine assists.
“When you have that kind of front court presence, it’s going to make things difficult for anybody we play,” said Derek Fisher, who added 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting. “Pau and Lamar have so many things that they can do well for us that help us on the floor.”
“I was telling Kobe on the bench that I made shots I was supposed to make,” added Odom. “I felt good coming into the game. I think we felt good as a team.”
Kobe did struggle from the field in an unusual way (5-for-23) but made up for it by getting to the foul line 18 times, making 15 en route to 25 points, then declaring after the game how thrilled he was to re-declare himself to the Lakers.
“I’m very excited to be here,” he said. “It’s very rare to have a player play his entire career in one city so I’m very excited.”
The Jazz were excited in general, having come into the contest as the league’s second-best team since Jan. 9, in the process erasing last season’s “can’t win on the road” label by winning 13-of-19 away from Salt Lake City, even if they’d lost 13 straight (now 14, including playoffs) in Los Angeles.
But the Lakers that came out of the tunnel on Friday night looked nothing like the group that had its struggles last week, and a lot like the champs, thanks in part to a good day of practice.
“I think we figured some things out at practice that carried over to today,” said Fisher. “We’ve been talking about execution, doing some things better offensively and defensively, but just having the opportunity to practice – which we hadn’t had on the road – worked better for us.”
In the opening quarter, a Purple and Gold wave overtook STAPLES Center, with Laker bodies flying around defensively (five Jazz TO’s) and the ball moving crisply on offense (63.6 percent shooting), the score reading 33-16. The starters certainly passed their first test, led by Odom’s 11 points and six boards with four dimes from Gasol, but how about the bench that had been a sore spot of late?
Not bad, with Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown nailing a 3-pointer apiece to push the lead to 19. The Jazz did rally, riding 14 second quarter points from arguably the league’s best point guard, Deron Williams, and using a 10-0 run to cut L.A.’s lead down to nine, where it would stay at halftime (54-45).
Though L.A. pushed the lead back to 14 on Fisher’s driving layup, Utah chipped a single point off the halftime lead heading into the fourth. When that deficit was then chiseled to four early on, Odom – who missed much of the third quarter in foul trouble – continued his season-best offensive game by scoring six straight points on a 3-pointer followed by an and-1 put back, just the start of a first-quarter-like run.
Bryant added two free throws and converted an and-1, Shannon Brown nailed a jumper and Odom slammed home Kobe’s near miss to push the lead all the way back to 19 with 5:44 remaining. An 18-4 run will do that, a run produced as L.A. did the simple things that make it such a potent team.
“We played defense and moved the ball, really ran the triangle,” said Odom (simple indeed).
That would just about do it, the lanky lefty adding another bucket to get his 26, and the bench taking over shortly thereafter (producing a few highlight plays just for fun, including D.J. Mbenga’s huge swat and Josh Powell’s alley-oop slam) to seal a 106-92 victory.
Doesn’t that road trip seem like a long time ago?
Up next for the Lakers is a Sunday afternoon contest against the San Antonio Spurs, but until then, your numbers:
9 Season-high assist total for Pau Gasol, who added 14 points and 16 rebounds, just a single dime away from a triple-double.
14 Straight wins for the Lakers over the Jazz at STAPLES Center, including victories in the past two playoff series between the teams.
16 Jazz points in the first quarter after they’d scored 44 and 40 points in respective first quarters against New York and Golden State.
26 Season high in points from Lamar Odom, who was on fire in making 11-of-14 shots (3-of-3 from 3) while adding 10 rebounds.
26.8 Ron Artest’s 3-point percentage in March, which dropped his average on the season from nearly 40 percent to 36.4 percent, allowing Jordan Farmar (37.4) to claim the team lead. He was 0-for-2 on Friday.