Lakers 116, Nuggets 102: Return of the Drew
16 points, seven boards, one dime, 21:05 of PT. Welcome back, Andrew Bynum.
The Bigs: Plural. As the saying goes, two seven footers are better than one. All the media attention centered around Andrew Bynum's return, and perhaps the Nuggets focused too heavily on him as well. It was the Lakers other big man, Pau Gasol, who finished with 27 points and killed Denver on the backboard, tallying career highs in total rebounds (19) and offensive boards (11).
Bynum had an immediate impact as well, adding 16 points and seven boards in 21 stellar minutes. As advertised, he looked healthy, and his presence contributed to Gasol's career rebounding marks.
“I was able to take advantage of the fact that he was a little off still on his rhythm on his shots,” Gasol said. “He got really good deep position offensively, and I was able to go after the ball because he attracted two defenders.”
The Bench: Yes, they shot poorly from the field (7-25), but against one of the most productive benches in the league, the Lakers second unit held its own, racking up 32 points and 13 assists. Shannon Brown came off the pine early and provided a spark (five points, three assists and one perfect three-pointer), Lamar Odom (seven points, nine rebounds, four assists) played well early before tailing off in the second half and Luke Walton (six points, four rebounds and three assists) added highly productive minutes.
Foul Shooting: For a team that has struggled at times this year from the charity stripe, the Lakers won the game there tonight. While shooting only 42.5% from the floor, the purple and gold marched to the line a jaw-dropping 46 times, converting 37 (80.4%). Not surprisingly, Gasol and Kobe Bryant shot the most freebies – Pau was 9-11, Kobe 9-10. Bryant was able to penetrate at will against the futile defensive efforts of JR Smith, or pretty much anyone else wearing a Nuggets uniform. It also helped that the game was called tighter than a hangman's noose; In total, 57 fouls were whistled by Steve Javie's crew leading to 75 total free throw attempts.
- Jordan Farmar: When Derek Fisher picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, Phil Jackson went to Shannon Brown. After the game, PJ said it was in part a matchup thing- he wanted the stronger Brown in there to body up against Denver's Chauncey Billups. In the second half, Brown was again the first guard off the bench. Both Farmar and Brown ended up with about 14 minutes each and Jackson made a point to say after the game that this isn't necessarily a permanent rotation change, but given how well (and how much) Brown played in Sacramento and again tonight, it's easy to assume, if I might slightly bastardize Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, that change may be afoot at the proverbial Circle K. Farmar wasn't awful Thursday, but there's no question that he's struggling, and his margin for error is now extremely small. So tonight, when he was 0-2 from the floor, had three fouls, and continued his tendency to over-dribble like disciple of Stevie Franchise, it certainly didn't help Farmar's cause.
- Trevor Ariza: 1-8 from the floor, only one rebound in 19+ minutes of burn. Plus, he had a little trouble sticking a very aggressive Carmelo Anthony, who made a statement early with some aggressive play and eight first quarter points. When he's determined to take it to the rack, Melo can be a tough guard for Ariza, who is longer than he is quick. In fairness, Denver did a nice job getting him the ball in position to attack, and (oh yeah) 'Melo is pretty freakin' good at basketball. While the Lakers have a strong record of bottling him up, you can't expect it to happen every time out.
- Derek Fisher: Foul trouble hampered him all night, and he finished with four points on 2-5 shooting, with both buckets coming in the last four minutes after the Lakers had pushed the lead back over ten. All in all, not a great evening for Fish, but on the plus side, he only played 21:14. Combine that with the good minutes for Shannon Brown, and it's actually a pretty good silver lining. A little more rest on the bench, even if it comes via foul trouble, may not be such a bad thing for Fisher.
- Deja Vu: Anyone else get a very comforting sense of it? While the Lakers have been very good without Bynum, it was fun to see (again) the potential of what they can be with him. Ben mentioned the rebounding above, and a lot of that has to do with LA's ability to once again roll out three outstanding glass eaters, in Bynum, Gasol, and Lamar Odom. When the two seven footers are out on the floor together, it's very difficult to keep both off the glass. Many of Gasol's 11 offensive boards came on weakside clean ups. Even when Bynum is on the bench, most teams don't have the depth to counter the guys LA will keep on the floor. Phil Jackson now has the luxury of keeping two of those three out on the court throughout most of the game. That's incredibly difficult to counter.
There were the 32 personals Denver racked up, in part because of LA's interior pressure. And, of course, the free and easy 33 piled up by Kobe Bryant. The better the guys around him, the tougher it is to overplay 24, or, conversely, the more the opposition pays for trying. Kobe was effective all over the floor, from mid-range and beyond, and most importantly, found lanes to the bucket. 11 freebies were a welcome sight. We've talked about not making Bynum out to be a savior, putting the pressure of a title on his shoulders. That's not fair to him. But tonight, it was clear what the team was missing in his absence, and what they have a chance to regain over the next three games before the playoffs begin (likely) a week from Sunday.