Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, two of the NBA’s most gifted players both in physical talent and in mind, orchestrated a second consecutive monster scoring game as the Lakers beat Phoenix 124-112 to take a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
The Spaniard led all scorers with 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting with nine boards and five assists, while Bryant amassed a playoff-career-high 13 assists – the most by a Laker in a playoff game since Magic Johnson’s 13 in 1996 against Houston – alongside his 21 points and five boards.
“We are just having a hard time, we can’t slow them down,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “I thought we played well offensively, but every time we tried to make an adjustment to slow them down, they go somewhere else. You do a great job on Kobe … they go to Pau, and we double team Pau, and there’s Lamar (Odom) … there’s a good reason they’re the world champs.”
After a 40-point performance in Game 1′s 128-107 victory, Bryant received additional attention in Game 2, so he simply dished into the waiting arms of Gasol, Ron Artest (18 points) and Lamar Odom (17 points plus 11 rebounds) as the Lakers shot 58 percent (57.7 to be precise) for the second straight game.
“There’s a reason (Bryant’s) the best basketball player in the world,” said Gentry, whose team lost for the second consecutive time for the first time since Jan. 25-26. “He’s not going to force things. He doesn’t do that anymore.”
In fairness, after Game 1, Bryant had provided ample warning.
“We just move the ball to an open guy,” he said. “They send two guys at me, I’ve done my job. I’ve made them make adjustments and (gotten) easy opportunities for my teammates. We’ll be ready if that happens.”
He, and his teammates, certainly were, making 45-of-78 field goals, getting to the line 34 times, hitting 9-of-16 threes (56.3 percent led by three each from Artest and Jordan Farmar) and scoring 52 points in the paint.
And if Bryant were directing traffic on the perimeter, he was quite appreciative of a certain Spaniard inside that saw things the same way.
“He’s making all the right reads and all the right plays at the right time,” Bryant said of Gasol. “It makes the game a lot easier, obviously, to have a big that can catch, complete and make plays. We’re extremely well versed in playing against teams that double and zone and things like that. We’ve seen it before.”
They saw it most notably in last season’s WCF’s against Denver in Games 5 and 6, in fact, the latter of which resulted in 10 assists from Kobe; and while the Suns didn’t always double-team Bryant aggressively, their defense certainly shifted in his direction.
“It’s pick your poison with these guys,” said Gentry. “I mean, you look at the stat sheet there’s like 27, 21, 28 (points), you know, I mean, it gets to be real difficult.”
Steve Nash, who scored just 11 points but dished out 15 assists for the Suns, explained why Gasol makes things so much more difficult when the defense is already having to focus on Bryant.
“He’s extremely long,” said the Canadian. “He’s able to go both ways in the post. He’s a good shooter and passer for a big guy he can look over the defense (and) double teams.
“He’s extremely versatile. He can put the ball on the floor. He can make plays at the same time he can score going both ways in the post. So he’s a terrific player.”
Such is Gasol’s skill level that it took a two-time MVP 30 seconds to describe, but for the seven-footer, the two games in which L.A. averaged 126 points on Phoenix have been simple in principal.
“You have to read what they do to you and just make the right play,” he said. “They tried to front most of the game. They allowed the entry pass a couple times. And then you read if the double team comes. If it doesn’t, then you attack. That’s pretty much what we tried to do tonight. Obviously we did a better job, very good job in the fourth quarter of it.”
In the deciding fourth quarter, which the teams entered tied at 90 after a late Suns’ run, L.A. outscored Phoenix 34-22 while making 11-of-18 field goals, including 5-of-7 from Gasol and 3-of-4 from Odom, who was terrific off the bench for a second straight night. Six turnovers in the period hurt the visitors measurably, while Farmar’s two three-pointers – the second of which pushing L.A.’s lead back to 11 – certainly didn’t help.
Defensively, Phoenix tried straight man-to-man, they laid off Kobe, they doubled Kobe, they went small, they zoned up…
“They made it difficult for us no matter what scheme we threw at them defensively,” said Nash.
Or, in Phil Jackson’s words: “We’ve found a number of ways to score. We’ve been able to play both styles of basketball as a team for the last two or three years. We like to control the pace, but we feel comfortable if it’s an accelerated pace.”
Though they didn’t look tired from the high pace of Games 1 and 2, the Lakers now have three full days to rest before Sunday’s Game 3 in Phoenix, during which Bryant expects “myriad” defensive looks.
“I think they’ll mix it up and try to keep us off balance,” he said. “Do myriad of coverages so we don’t get in rhythm. We’re going to kind of quarterback the situation and make the reads according to the situation. We’ll be ready to do that.”
Being ready isn’t as difficult for a team featuring Bryant and his buddy Gasol, who have seemingly seen it all before.
Until they try to lead L.A. to its ninth straight playoff win, your numbers:
0 Home losses for the Lakers in the playoffs. During their 2009 NBA Title run, the Lakers dropped one of the team’s first two home games to both Houston and Denver, but are 7-0 in 2010.
6 Fourth quarter turnovers for the Suns, which played a part in L.A.’s 34-22 edge in the deciding period since the teams entered the quarter tied at 90.
13 Assists for Kobe Bryant, a playoff career high, the most by a Laker since Magic Johnson tossed 13 against Houston in the 1996 Playoffs.
29 Points for Pau Gasol on 11-of-18 shooting, which actually brings his terrific field goal percentage in the playoffs down a tenth of a percentage point to 58.1 percent. The Spaniard scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and added nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He’s good.
36 Points for L.A.’s bench, thanks to Lamar Odom’s 17 (plus 11 boards, four assists and three steals), Jordan Farmar’s 11 (thanks to 3-of-3 shooting from three in only 14 minutes) and Shannon Brown (eight points, two assists). Though Phoenix got five threes from Jared Dudley, the bench was outscored for the second straight game, 36-26.