Lakers head into All-Star break on good note with 96-81 victory over Utah Jazz
Sprinting down the court, Lakers forward Pau Gasol let out a smile.
He was just involved with a play in the first quarter that exemplified teamwork. He blocked a shot from Utah forward Carlos Boozer. Lakers forward Lamar Odom then ran a 3-on-2 break and found guard Shannon Brown on the left wing. Brown then one-timed it to Gasol on the other end for an alley-oop layin.
This play wasn't particularly unique. Fortunately for the Lakers, they executed many of these plays in their 96-81 victory Wednesday over the Utah Jazz. But the energy level on that particular play and the happy reaction after its perfect execution show how cohesion can do wonders for a team, and also end the Jazz's nine-game winning streak.
The effort resulted in the Lakers' third consecutive victory without guard Kobe Bryant, who has been on the sidelines because of a sprained left ankle but is keeping his options open Sunday for the NBA All-Star game. The Lakers have also won without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the second half Saturday against Portland and the following two games against San Antonio and Utah (32-19) because of a bruised right hip. He is considering getting a cortisone shot after the All-Star break.
Forgive me if this game recap sounds repetitive, but it's hard to ignore what the Lakers have duplicated in the past three games against teams among the Western Conference elite. Odom continued his aggressiveness offensively and on the glass with a team-leading and season-high 25 points and 11 boards on a highly efficient clip of 7 of 9 shooting from the field. Gasol, more of a director than the team's No. 1 option, had 21 points on a 10 of 15 clip, 19 rebounds and five blocks. And reserve guard Jordan Farmar continued his energetic play with 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting.
Not everything worked perfectly. Guard Derek Fisher, forward Ron Artest and reserve forward Luke Walton combined for only nine points on 3 of 18 shooting. Shannon Brown, starting in place of Bryant, scored nine points on 4 of 6 shooting in the first quarter, but only scored two points on 1 of 9 shooting the rest of the way. And though the game's result was never in question, the Lakers opened the fourth quarter with sloppy play. But with a team effort on full display, there's really no need to nitpick individual performances.
Surely, the performances from these past three games will bring up debate before and after the All-Star break on how long the Lakers (41-13) can sustain these type of performances, especially whenever Bryant and Bynum return to the lineup. It's indisputable that Bryant is the Lakers' best player, the team is better off for it and he will justifiably have the most looks offensively. It's also indisputable that despite Bynum's inconsistency, he is a needed inside presence. That being said, it'll be interesting to see whether the Lakers can continue such a strong team effort whenever Bryant and Bynum return. But the bottom line is this -- teamwork isn't an exclusionary concept; it's inclusionary by nature.
The Lakers have the numbers to back that up. In their last three games, Artest, Gasol, Odom, Fisher, Brown and Farmar have exceeded their scoring averages in at least one of the contests. During this stretch, the Lakers also held opponents to 84 points per game, 43.4% shooting from the field and 33.3% shooting from three-point range. Although those shooting percentage numbers bode similar to the Lakers' season average in allowing opponents to shoot 44.1% from the field and 31.8% from three-point range, their total team defense is a 12-point improvement from their season-average of 96.1 points per game.
Unlike the previous two contests, the Lakers didn't waste any time dictating the tone, ending the first quarter with a 31-18 lead thanks to a 12-0 run. Plays, such as Sasha Vujacic's steal that led to his behind-the-back pass to D.J. Mbenga on a fast-break dunk for a 46-32 lead with 5:58 remaining in the second quarter, typified the hustle the Lakers displayed throughout the first half.
The Lakers held Utah to one field goal in the final 3:29 of the second quarter en route to a 56-41 halftime lead. Yet, the Lakers coaching staff told KCAL-9's John Ireland that it drilled into the team that a flat effort in the remaining 24 minutes would result in a loss. That didn't happen, as the Lakers limited the Jazz to only 16 third-quarter points and led 76-57 entering the final quarter.
Of course, there were other factors that contributed to the win beyond the Lakers' control. Utah shot only 13 of 25 from the free-throw line. The team also came off a back-to-back against the Clippers Tuesday and reportedly didn't arrive in Utah until 5 a.m. on Wednesday.
But those small points shouldn't cloud the big picture. That picture is painted this way -- the Lakers head into the All-Star break with many things to be happy about, something that wasn't the case just three games ago.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lamar Odom had a season-high 25 points, going seven for nine from the field, 11 for 12 from the free-throw line. He also had 11 rebounds as the Lakers won their third straight game without Kobe Bryant and second straight without Andrew Bynum. Credit: Steve C Wilson/Associated Press.