Lakers' 92-83 victory over San Antonio Spurs provides needed momentum for rest of trip
Immediately after converting a putback, Lakers forward Ron Artest blew kisses to Lakers fans in the crowd at AT&T Center. Immediately after hitting a late-game corner three pointer, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant exchanged high-fives with Lakers fans sitting courtside. And immediately after the buzzer sounded, players gathered along the bench all with smiles on their faces.
The Lakers' 92-83 victory Wednesday over the San Antonio Spurs marked the team's seventh consecutive win, but this one was much different. While some of the Lakers remained split on if their current play served as a cause for concern, the team unanimously agreed their previous six wins meant very little.
Five of the wins came against sub. 500 opponents and featured inconsistent play. The latest victory came against the Spurs (42-28), which may not be the dominant team in the West they once were but San Antonio is still contending for a bottom seed in the NBA playoffs.
So how important is this win? Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had viewed the teams' first game of its five-game trip as the most important, not just because of the one-game-at-a-time mantra but also because he noticed the team's 114-111 loss to Miami March 4 established a trickling effect that spurred the Lakers to lose three consecutive road games. The Lakers still have four games left on their trip, the next stop Friday at Oklahoma City (43-27), but they provided plenty of reasons their performance against San Antonio could have a positive influence on the rest of the trip. And the factors extend beyond the fact that the Lakers (53-18) hold a six-game lead over Dallas (47-24) and a six-and-a-half-game leads over Denver (47-25) and Utah (47-25) for the top spot in the Western Conference standings with 11 games remaining.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who surpassed Alex English Wednesday for 12th place on the NBA's all-time leading scoring list, scored a team-high 24 points on an efficient 11 of 16 shooting, including 10 in the fourth quarter. While he was mostly limited all night fighting through double teams, he made the Spurs pay by embracing the facilitating role and ending the night with six assists.
For all the justifiable criticism, Artest has received for not fully understanding the triangle offense, he showed the Lakers once again why they signed him in the offseason. After the Lakers trailed 48-41 at halftime, Artest's seven points, three rebounds and two steals that quarter allowed the Lakers to end the quarter with a third-quarter lead. He grabbed five steals, marking the fifth time he forced at least five turnovers in a game. And his 16 points on five of 11 shooting shows he can be a vital part of the offense so long as those open shots from the perimeter keeping falling in.
Lakers forward Lamar Odom also proved instrumental in that third quarter charge, scoring the team's last five points of that quarter. His 19 points and 13 rebounds marked his 21st double double, but his typical night of dependence on the glass, shots from the perimeter and drives to the lane came with unusual circumstances. This is the 16th game Odom has played with an injured left shoulder -- second since the injury became public -- and he showed signs that he's not going to let the injury inhibit his effort and performance. He drove to the lane right handed, a skill he joked and actually hoped will develop during his injury. Odom also created contact inside, a habit some injured players may feel reluctant to follow in fear it would further hurt themselves.
Lakers forward Pau Gasol didn't have his best performance, scoring 11 points on only four of 11 shooting. But on a night he didn't have his presence inside, he made sure future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan didn't either. Gasol held Duncan to only six points on 2 of 11 shooting, far below his season-average of 15.2 points per contest.
There was the bench in Jordan Farmar's 11 points on four of eight shooting and Shannon Brown's eight points on three of five shooting. Brown's two consecutive three-pointers gave the Lakers a 66-63 lead with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter. And Farmar's three pointer with 9:07 left in the fourth quarter gave the Lakers a 75-73 edge. The performances were good enough for Jackson to play Derek Fisher for only 22 minutes, something he told reporters he wanted to do to conserve his energy. The performances also proved good enough for a unit whose effectiveness has been closely scrutinized, recently because of its one-point first-half performance last week against Sacramento and for nearly blowing a double-digit fourth quarter lead Sunday against Washington.
And last, but not last, the Lakers defense. It didn't appear the prettiest at first, what with George Hill's 20 first-half points. But the defense clamped down in the second half, holding Hill to only one point in the second half and forcing Manu Ginobili (24 points) to be the Spurs' only offensive option.
The Lakers' effort on all these fronts featured lots of energy, something the team acquired after playing only two games in seven nights and taking the day off on Monday. From this point forward, the Lakers can feed off the energy it established against San Antonio by building off that momentum for the rest of the trip.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, bottom, and San Antonio center Matt Bonner scramble for a loose ball during the first quarter of Wednesday's game. Credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press.