Out Of The Gate And Into The Win Column
With the expectations as lofty as they are this year for the Lakers, every game will fall under the magnifying glass more so than normal. Today was no different, as the Lakers opened their much anticipated season versus the new school Blazers.
With the dearth of talent the Blazers have it was a good way to get the Lakers out of the gate. They had to step up their speed a bit and be able to concentrate on a lot of defensive elements to keep the Blazers from getting into a rhythm they always get in against the Lakers.
More than any other part of the game that can keep the Lakers running ahead of the Blazers impending rhythm is defense. And tonight, the Lakers pulled out one of their stronger defensive efforts in a long time.
Sure with Oden going out due to the (hopefully not) inevitable foot injury things got easier, but before that had happened the Lakers had already shown some things in their defense that weren’t there last year. The most impressive section of the defense was spacing. The Lakers’ spacing on defense was perfect. Sure there were lapses, but they were very few. The spacing led to some really smooth jump switching throughout the whole game. Even better, once the starters set the defensive pace, the bench fell into place without missing a beat.
Individually there were some great performances too. Radmanovic had one of his better face-up defending game and did really well in keeping aware of where everyone was. Not such a big deal for some players, but for Vladi to focus the way he did showed some serious improvement on his part.
The main guy that let the Lakers play this kind of defense (and stick with me here) was Bynum.
Simply by having the big guy back in the paint gave the Lakers the confidence to stay at home on the perimeter and not worry about dipping down low to help out in the paint. That staying at home cut down the open three point attempts big time. Once those long and mid-range shots were taken away, the Blazers struggled at every turn to get any fluid offense.
Aside from that Andrew struggled mightily to get back to the game we know he has. The mammoth blocked shot by Oden on him in the 1st quarter did a good job in holding back Andrew’s confidence, but Bynum can’t let minor setbacks like that completely take him out of what he can do like it did. It wasn’t until Phil sat him down for a good chunk of the middle of the game that Andrew got his head back in order. Once he came in =with the minutemen towards the end of the game (granted when things were well in hand) he straightened out.
One big who looked like he hadn’t stopped playing since June (and really he hasn’t all that much) was Pau. The guy looked like it was Game 40 of the season as soon as the tip went in. While Kobe tried to get himself going, Pau stepped right into the primary scoring role and set Aldridge back on his heels in A hurry with an awesome array of shots in and out of the paint. With Andrew there in the paint with him Pau was far more mobile (or willing to be mobile) through the paint. The guy isn’t stagnant at all, but tonight you could see him moving anywhere he wanted to with ease. Even when he switched to the 5 at points there was no stopping him.
It was vintage Kobe tonight, as he sat in the background during the first half, letting other get in rhythm while he used himself as a distraction for the Blazer D. When the all too familiar 3rd quarter drudgery set in, Kobe took over. It w as a great Kobe brand show for a good 9 minutes there, as Kobe virtually had the entire Blazer team on a string at times.
One of the most unexpected openings was Trevor nailing shots from the arc. It was there in tiny forms during the pre-season, but the shot that has kept Trevor from a complete game looked like it had kicked in. Draining 2 shots from 3 and getting himself a real nice dunk early on in the game, further showed the absolute danger the Lakers roster can put you in. Defensively Trevor was up to his usual tricks, not letting Fernandez get more than a foot of room from him. Fernandez was running through screens and trying to use the inside traffic to lose Ariza, but it was no use. Trevor did a great job in zeroing in on Fernandez, not letting him get going.
Another positive amidst the flood of positives was Lamar. Hearing the rousing ovation he got as he stepped off the bench to come into the game has got to give him a boost. That ovation wasn’t there as faded in and out of games as a starter. As part of the bench Lamar isn’t afforded the warm up time he could have with the starters. With the speed Farmar has the Minutemen clicking at, Odom has got to come in and impact the game right away.
The bench role he’s accepted has also let his true talent – versatility, shine through. He had the Blazers pout back a couple times, taking the leftover Blazer big men out of their element and forcing them to run along the perimeter, leaving the inside thin. When that inside got thinned out Kobe swept in for a couple of nice plays (including a game punctuating dunk off a baseline drive).
Derek had some serious inside motivation tonight. The 3 takes off of open lanes (again due to Andrew and Pau simply being in the game) were nothing but strong.
The Lakers’ point guard part deux, Farmar continued his pre-season run into the regular season tonight. He was a bit too glamour-play happy, throwing 2 errant alley-oop passes and pushing the action from inside to mid-range a bit too much. When Jordan settled into his normal game, the bench was humming again. He showed great vision in traffic and on transition tonight, as usual.
At the end of the day it was the relentless roster of the Lakers that had the Blazers looking exhausted by halftime. Despite one run to lower the score back down to 8, there was really no time in the game you felt the momentum swing. That was due to, again, consistent defense and excellent spacing on both sides of the ball.
There were times you could see McMillan grasping at lineups, as he shuffled players in and out with more frequency than normal (also trying to make up for the loss of Oden). The fact there is no rest in the game for another team to make some time (unless the Lakers slack off like they did at the end of the 2nd into the 3rd) will be the Lakers’ calling card this season.
So, it’s one game down, 81 to go. Obviously it’s not time to make season judgments, but if the team focuses on defense the way they did tonight, we’re in for a fun season.