Lakers 102, Rockets 96: Short handed, but not empty handed
The first of consecutive games in the Lone Star State, and the Lakers felt more of the "lone" part than preferable. Already down Andrew Bynum to match up against Houston's Yao Ming, the rumble needed to be fought without the services of Lamar Odom, serving a one-game suspension for violating a section of the NBA's rule about not leaving the bench during a skirmish. Mainly, the section that says not to. Throw in dudes like Ron Artest and Shane Battier who've enjoyed previous success making Kobe Bryant labor for points, being just 48 hours removed from the season's worst loss and the Rockets taking eleven of their last baker's dozen, and a 102-96 purple and gold victory appeared an uphill battle of hope. And once the opening 24 minutes were in the books, an uphill battle while trudging barefoot through a few feet of snow.
After a knotted first quarter featuring play equal parts inspired (early makes and big hustle from Derek Fisher) and ragged (five turnovers), the Lakers' second unit proceeded to pull away, only to watch the Rockets regroup and bust out a 14-0 run over four minutes. From there, the bad got worse. A nineteen-footer from Trevor Ariza (inserted into the starting lineup for Luke Walton at the last minute, at Luke's request) broke the drought, but layups from him and Josh Powell (taking LO's place) were the only field goals over the final 3:54. Frustration- along with an eleven point Houston lead- was clearly building, but the half's final sequence struck me as an omen of things to come.
Guarded by Kobe with scant seconds ticking down, Lakers Blog icon Von Wafer attempted an upfake to draw contact against his former teammate. Basically, trying to sucker Kobe with a Kobe Special. The Mamba proceeded to nonchalantly stuff Von's jumper in two handed fashion, his body language very much, "dude, knock it off. I'm not in the mood." Kinda reminded me of when Indiana Jones calmly decides to shoot the guy with the sword. It also created a vibe that seemed to mark "enough" officially declared and the "bidness" stage reached.
Got that right.
The second half was all about the guests, a squad that steadily chipped away at their host's advantage. They did it by playing fantastic D, holding Houston to just 45 additional points, highlighted by an bone dry seventeen-point third frame. They did it by becoming the tougher squad on the boards, turning the glass eating tables and racking a 36-33 advantage in the box score. They did it by taking considerably better care of the ball (a mere trio of gaffes in all). And... well... Kobe did a fair amount of "it" by his lonesome, racking 30 of his 37 points after halftime, eighteen in second half. Ironically, he did it often at the direct expense of Artest, a cat Kobe conceded has gotten the past upper hand against him.
Of course, it helped that Ron Ron went kinda crazy crazy, so overcome with their mano y' mano/trash talk/double T that he took himself completely out of the game. If 82games.com keeps records for games containing the most awful unforced shots, ridiculous fouls and generally goony bird decisions, I'm guessing Artest's effort made him the newest king of the mountain. Man alive, was this dude a couple tacos short of a combo platter.
Kobe's heroics can't and shouldn't be overlooked, but for my money, the most important aspect of the game was seeing a team band together and conquer poor circumstances. There was an obvious need for guys to step up, and from top to bottom, the Lakers got contributions. Josh Powell more than acquitted himself in Lamar Odom's absence, going 8-14 for seventeen points to compliment nine rebounds, three of which came on the offensive glass. All three were also directly converted into either buckets or trips to the line. Pau Gasol chipped in 20 points. Trevor Ariza had a few terrific sequences, the most exciting coming on a slither to the bucket to snag and put back his own bricked J. Hustle plays on D came from Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton, who also canned an 18-footer to snag a late lead that Houston never regained.
Rarely is a victory over a team in your rear view mirror fodder for "statement win" talk. This one, however, could be the exception that proves the rule.
Photo 1: Kobe scores a basket around Houston's Yao Ming. Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Photo 2: Kobe Bryant reacts after making a shot. Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip