The last time the Los Angeles Lakers were a .500 team was December 28, 2012. Sunday’s 99-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks put them at 30-30 on the year, and every victory they claim is another step toward making the postseason.
Since the All-Star break, the Lakers are 5-1 and have played with a new energy. That energy was apparent Sunday night, as they jumped out to a 16-8 lead by the game’s first timeout.
They were scoring quickly in transition and executing well in the half court, but the problem was that the defense didn’t play with the same efficiency. An 11-point lead was cut to four by the end of the first quarter, and it was a sign to come that Atlanta wouldn’t go away easy.
As well as L.A. began this game, that start was long forgotten to begin the second. The Hawks were turning defense into offense, and they had stolen all momentum that the home team once had. Turnovers were a problem for the Lakers the entire contest, and Atlanta was able to take full advantage.
Much like the first quarter, the third began with L.A. playing an efficient, up-tempo brand of basketball. But also like the first, it ended with the Hawks keeping things close. A 13-2 Atlanta run helped the Hawks stay in it, and the Lakers led by just six heading into the final 12 minutes.
As you’d expect in a battle of runs, the fourth quarter proved to be the most competitive stretch of the game. Twenty-one total turnovers for the Lakers was nearly catastrophic, but with a playoff-like atmosphere filling the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers walked away with smiles on their faces and their confidence as high as ever.
Steve Nash began this game as one of the more aggressive players on the floor. That aggressiveness forced him into some early turnovers, but it also led to a number of easy buckets.
The 39-year-old guard has always been one of the craftiest players in the game, and it was his ability to get to the rim that helped him in this one. Jeff Teague couldn't stay in front of him, and as a result, Nash created scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates right out of the gate.
By the end of the second quarter, Nash had recorded eight points and seven assists in 18 minutes of play. He was just 3-of-7 from the floor, and he'd turned the ball over three times, but he also had a game-high plus-17 in the plus/minus category.
Nash has been guilty this season of getting off to good starts only to quieting down late, but a strong second half led to a 15-point (on 6-of-12 shooting) 10-assist outing.
It's no secret that he and Kobe Bryant are beginning to jell, and it's no longer the case that one of them has to sacrifice stats for the other to succeed.
Kobe Bryant entered this game on an absolute tear. In the four games leading up to Sunday, he was posting 35 points per game, along with 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists, and he was scoring in efficient fashion.
Things weren't too different this time around, as he managed to stuff the stat sheet once again against the Atlanta Hawks. He was extremely effective virtually everywhere—scoring in the mid-range (as he has his entire career), and putting his body on the line attacking the rim every chance he got.
In 39 minutes, Bryant scored 34 points on 13-of-27 shooting. He also recorded six rebounds and four assists, but it was the emotion from start to finish that really made the difference.
Bryant wanted to win this game, and he looked as driven as ever to get this team back to .500.
Metta World Peace scored the first bucket of the contest for Los Angeles, but unfortunately for him and his team, he wouldn't score another point until the beginning of the third quarter.
If there's any bright side to World Peace's game, it's that the Lakers never really needed him to score. It got offensive production in a multitude of places, and a quiet game early from their starting small forward was just fine for this team on this night.
World Peace had his best stretch to start the second half. He forced two turnovers and scored a couple baskets in the opening two minutes, and he helped set the tone for a strong finish at home. He would end up nailing two big three-pointers, and he recorded a total of 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Defensively, World Peace was given a number of different assignments. He never truly shut anyone down from start to finish, but he did a good job of staying physical against the Hawks' bigger bodies in his 29 minutes of play.
If we've learned one thing about Earl Clark this season, it's that the 25-year-old forward is an incredibly smart player.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, it's been rare to see a bad game from the forward. Even when he's quiet, he still makes the right plays, and so was the case Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite scoring just seven points in the contest, Clark proved to be efficient. He made three of his six shots in 20 minutes, including his only attempt from long range, and demonstrated his ability to move without the ball.
At 6'10", Clark is able to run the baseline, set up on the perimeter and cut back inside on any possession. Having Steve Nash on his side makes it easy to stay motivated, as he knows he's going to get the ball if he loses his defender.
Having a good game and staying quiet aren't mutually exclusive, and if anybody has exemplified that this year, it's been Earl Clark at the power forward position.
Too many times this season, we've seen the Los Angeles Lakers look away from Dwight Howard early in games. That wasn't the case Sunday night, but the big man still struggled to get going.
Atlanta came out with a big lineup, as it started Zaza Pachulia at center and Al Horford at power forward. Howard was just 1-of-4 from the field to begin the game, and he added two fouls and a technical to his first 11 minutes on the court.
The bigger problem for Howard was that he struggled finding deep positioning. The Hawks were bodying him up from the start, as he missed shots, picked up fouls and struggled simply catching passes.
When Howard simultaneously picked up his second personal and his technical in the second quarter, it could have meant trouble for the rest of the game. Luckily for L.A., he didn't throw in the towel and instantly began to show new life.
Aside from foul trouble, Howard played well after a slow start. He managed to pull down 15 rebounds in 41 minutes, and while his five turnovers and four fouls were problems throughout, his 41.7 percent shooting was enough to keep Atlanta honest from start to finish.
Any time Antawn Jamison produces off the bench, it's a welcomed sight for the Lakers.
Jamison came into Sunday's matchup averaging 15.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in his last seven outings. Solid showings for him are no longer a surprise for fans, but this is a team that has been criticized for its bench play all season long.
Jamison was as effective as soon as he got in the game Sunday. By halftime, he had the second-most points (11) and the second-most rebounds (six) of anyone on the roster, and he was hitting shots from all over the floor, including behind the three-point line.
The problem for Jamison was that he couldn't keep it going, as he scored zero points and grabbed just two rebounds in the entire second half.
Jamison missed a couple of open looks, but he mostly fell victim to Kobe Time. When Kobe Bryant began taking over the game, Jamison fell out of the offense. And with a quiet second half, he won't likely get the credit he deserves for the eight rebounds he grabbed in the contest.
The Lakers got production from just two players off their bench—Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison.
As mentioned, Jamison played a solid first half but quieted down in the final two frames. Blake, on the other hand, played some of his best ball late, allowing Steve Nash to rest until the midway point of the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Blake played a good game. He scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting—including 2-of-3 from deep—and he managed to collect five assists along the way.
The problem for Blake was on defense, where he had trouble keeping up with the quickness of the Hawks. The 6'3" reserve is known throughout the league as a feisty presence, but that didn't stop his adversary, Devin Harris, from scoring the final 11 points of the third quarter for the Hawks.
The only other player to come off the bench Sunday was Jodie Meeks. The 2-guard scored just one point and finished with a team-worst minus-18 in the plus/minus category.