All kidding aside, it really is about how you finish
Because tonight's 100-92 win over the Spurs, a victory that vaulted the Lakers into the NBA Finals, was hardly secured by what they did over most of the opening half. In fact, the first 20 minutes or so came pretty close to guaranteeing a Game 6 on Saturday. Lamar Odom suspected his team came out amped to knock out their opponents in a style more suitable for a diamond than the triangle. "We came out batting like a DH," smiled Lamar. "Trying to hit the home run, trying to get them right out of the game really early." But instead of long balls, the Lakers were putting up long jumpers, most of which clanged rim and all of which eschewed the ball movement (especially inside) that's become a 2008 Laker staple. Down 17 at one point in the second quarter, the Lakers concluded the first half on an 11-2 run, with points mostly coming off layups. Perhaps inspired (or simply slapped into reality), the Lakers spent the second half knuckling down on both sides of the ball. Chipping away at San Antonio's lead, slowly but surely putting their foes back enough in the rear view mirror.
Kobe Bryant's 26 second-half points were obviously huge (making the 39 total even bigger), but contributions came fittingly from every Laker who stepped on the court. Pau Gasol's 5-15 shooting was offset and then some by 19 boards (10 offensive) and a quartet of blocks. Vlad Radmanovic led his teammates in the first quarter with five points. Jordan Farmar provided a big spark of energy off the bench, with his fellow mobsters following suit in their quest to make a mark or two while on the court. In the end, the team that's talked happily about its all-important bond found success through a group effort, creating a box score that accentuates a truly remarkable season.
The breakdown is below, courtesy of BK.
- Kobe Bryant: 39 points on 16-30 from the floor, and the dude flat out owned the fourth quarter. 17 points on 6-11 from the floor, and 4-4 from the stripe. It was a particularly effective brand of "Kobe Takeover," one that suited the team well. While there were a couple miraculous shots - my particular favorite being the step back J from just beyond the free throw line, over the outstretched arm of Tim Duncan (he's tall) with 2:22 left in the fourth - if there's such a thing as a team effort in a one-man show, this was it. The Lakers consistently freed Bryant off of screens, running him baseline, getting him loose on pick and rolls, and giving 24 the space to operate effectively. He was able to see the floor and attack it, and create high-percentage looks (by his standards, at least). Very little of the isolation that occasionally will plague the team. He was huge in the fourth, lifting his team and sinking the Spurs in the process. Lakers getting him the ball in space late - takeover mode, but a good version of it.
- Jordan Farmar: He finished the night with eight points on 4-8 from the floor, and added three dimes as well, in only 16:39 of burn. Most importantly, only one of those shots was from downtown. That means Farmar was doing more of what he does best - attacking the rack. He was able to get inside and give the team a lift, both in the second quarter when he contributed six points to a strong effort from the second unit, and in the fourth with a kick to a wide open Luke Walton in the right corner for a three, followed by a nifty driving layup to help the Lakers go from down one to up four. He needed a measure of redemption coming into the series, and after the last couple games, it's fair to say he's found it.
- The Second Unit: They didn't necessarily blow up for big numbers - Farmar had his eight points, Sasha had nine (three coming on a pure-Sasha three as the game ended, ticking off a ton of people in Vegas, I'm sure), and Walton logged five - but as a group they were a big factor in L.A.'s ability to both hang early (a nice 6-0 run in Q2 cut the Spurs' lead from 17 to 11), and force the issue late. All three of those guys had clutch moments. Farmar I mentioned, along with Walton's monster triple. Sasha's three with 7:16 to play was a huge moment for L.A., and as it's been throughout the series, the effort was there on defense.
- Defense: There were long stretches of tonight's game where the team seemed content not to run the offense, developed a crush on the jumper worse than the one I had on Belinda Carlisle in the mid-eighties, and as a result had trouble putting the ball in the hole. The reason, then, they were able to come back from a 17-point second quarter deficit was their work on the other end. The Lakers gave up 28 points in the first quarter, again due in large part to inefficient work on offense, but then put the clamps down. 20 points in the second, then 15 in the third. Over the first four minutes of the fourth, the Lakers kept the pressure up and were able to build a lead. Overall, the Spurs shot 48.6% from the floor, but that mark fell to 38% in the middle two quarters. Tim Duncan was 7-19, Manu Ginobili 3-9. Only Tony Parker (11-22, 23 points) was able to do damage efficiently. (It should be noted that, with 19/15/10 plus a blocked shot, that Duncan hardly stunk Thursday night...) Popovich credited the Lakers D, not any issues they had offensively. Once the Lakers really got going in the second quarter, the rotations and switches were strong. Six blocked shots helped defend their basket. There will always be breakdowns, but the Lakers didn't give away a lot of points.
- Offensive Discipline: As I mentioned, they were jumper happy, especially in the early going, and didn't seem to have the patience required to run the offense. On the night, L.A. finished with only 16 assists on 38 field goals, a very low figure for them, especially at home. Obviously things improved as the night went on, but footage of Game 5 will not be sealed in the time capsule so that Future Man might learn to effectively run the triangle. As has been the trend through the season, in moments where the Lakers aren't effective offensively, they tend to break down on the other end.
- Eh...: Not the best of games from Derek Fisher (2-7, 5 points), who both struggled offensively with his jump shot and had trouble tracking Parker. The latter is certainly understandable. Lamar Odom did some good things, including a great coast-to-coast layup+1 near the end of the second quarter that helped cut San Antonio's lead heading into the half and another strong driving hoop in the fourth. Overall, though, it was a mixed bag for Odom. Not quite as pronounced as Games 1 and 3, but LO had trouble finding his groove. But as it's been with Gasol, even on those nights where Odom isn't a force, he's still a contributor, which indicates where his game has gone.
- Pau Gasol: He wasn't dominant offensively, but as it was in Game 4, he did some good work on Duncan, and was a powerful force on the glass. 19 overall, including 10 offensive rebounds. The five assists and four blocks also give an idea of how involved he was, despite a poor shooting night (5-15 plus 2-2 from the line, good for 12 points). There were other contributions that didn't show up in the, or at least my, scorebook (intangibles, people!). He was very active on the screen and roll down the stretch, helping pave the way for Kobe's fourth quarter Festival of Scoring. Gasol still shortarmed some shots and struggled with contact inside, but I think he answered PJ's challenge to play (literally) stronger. "He played well," Jackson said. I would agree.
- Gregg Popovich, with this assessment of the game and the series: "I'm proud of the work our guys did. I thought they busted their butts. That doesn't mean you wholesale change things. It means they're pretty damn solid. They just played a team that was better. That's why the Lakers won... The better team won. You get a seven-game series, you win four games, you're the better team."
My favorite quote of night. Vlad Rad was asked what it felt like when the clock finally counted down to zero. "Well, it felt like zero." Big laughs, but I knew right away what he meant. You're happy, but mostly just relieved the "W" was actually cemented before something bad happens. "You want that game to finish," admitted Radmanovic. "It was a really tough game. A lot of ups and down. Our team showed character again."