Lakers find Thursday's practice instrumental in 106-92 victory over Utah Jazz
The Lakers walked into Thursday's practice with more of an eagerness to play than to sulk. They approached the practice with more of an eagerness to learn than to point fingers. And they finished the practice with more of an eagerness to replicate the improved execution in an actual game than wonder if it's at all possible.
The Lakers had plenty of reason to allow frustrations to get the better of them coming off a 2-3 trip. Heck, there were already visible signs that had already taken place, what with Kobe Bryant's post-game scowls, Sasha Vujacic's argument with the coaching staff and the entire team's flustered and angry look it gave one another after each mistake. The Lakers situation was so bleak, admitted General Manager Mitch Kupchak that he and owner Jerry Buss had decided to watch practice together, though Kupchak noted that the two didn't talk specifics about the team's dynamics. But the meaning was well understood.
Said Kupchak: "He's aware and I'm aware and you guys are aware that we’re not playing our best basketball right now."
That's why the Lakers deemed the practice to be so important. They went through the triangle offense until it was properly executed and reviewed the team's defensive rotations until they were fully sharpened. And the reason for that changed outlook was pretty simple.
"It’s guys understanding that we can be beat," Bryant said. "You got to really know that. You can look up and all of a sudden you have a short postseason. It’s that reality that needed to set in. [Derek Fisher] and I can talk and talk and talk about our experience but until the young fellas go through it and feel that themselves, I think that’s when the change happens."
The Lakers made the first step in making that change with a 106-92 victory Friday over the Utah Jazz, marking their 14th consecutive victory over Utah at Staples Center. Not only did the victory come against a possible playoff opponent, the Lakers (55-21) have a comfortable five-game lead over Dallas (50-26) and Phoenix (50-26) as well as a five-and-a-half game advantage over Utah (50-27). And the performance featured a balanced offense that did wonders.
Lakers forward Lamar Odom had a season-high 26 points and 10 rebounds, Pau Gasol complemented him inside, falling short of a triple double with 14 points, 16 rebounds and a season-high nine assists. And Fisher turned his shooting around with 14 points on a five of seven clip. That balance trumpeted Bryant's 25 points on five of 23 shooting and a 15 of 18 finish at the charity stripe, a performance he acknowledged partly had to do with his fractured right index finger getting wacked a few too many times.
While Bryant was largely the center of focus on Friday for officially agreeing to a three-year extension that will likely result in playing his entire career with the Lakers, the subtext to that story involved the fact Odom, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Gasol are also locked in to long-term deals. That clearly shows the Lakers' success will be primarily based on how cohesive the team plays together. That happened against the Jazz, even with Bynum missing his seventh consecutive game because of a strained left Achilles' tendon.
The Lakers' effort against Utah illustrated that potential. And the team points to Thursday's practice as being instrumental in unlocking it. Bryant said the practice "helped clarify some of the things we wanted to do." Gasol added, "things were really clicking out there and we had a really good flow on our game even though we we were tired." And Fisher concluded, "we figured some things out yesterday in practice that carried over today." This was something the team often lamented, not having a full practice even during the team's trip. Though no one criticized Phil Jackson's approach in giving the team the day off both Sunday and Tuesday this week, the team acknowledged the extra time together Thursday helped.
So why does this matter?
Said Odom: "Running the offense the right way gives us energy and balance defensively."
That was on full display right away against Utah, with the Lakers jumping out to a 33-16 first-quarter lead because of those two ingredients. The Lakers shot 63.6% from the field and held the Jazz to 30% shooting, and there were plenty of examples to illustrate what went into that quick start.
On the first offensive play of the game, Bryant threw an alley oop to Odom, who laid the lob off the glass. Bryant suffocated Utah guard Wesley Matthews on the next possession, and stole the ball from him after he picked up his dribble. A few possessions later, Gasol kicked out of a double team to Artest, who then passed the ball around the perimeter to Fisher, who nailed the open trey.
Following a Lakers timeout with the team leading 13-8 with 6:54 remaining in the first quarter, the offensive and defensive synergy kept clicking. As Bryant flashed to the right post, Artest found Odom open on the far corner and then cut to the far baseline. He caught an entry pass from Odom, dribbled twice and converted on a hook shot. Artest then stole an entry pass from Deron Willliams and passed to Fisher on the break. Fisher spun in the paint and dished the ball to Odom, who scored on the easy layin. The next possession? Same thing, different players. Bryant swiped the ball from Boozer before he made an errant pass to Gasol. He one-timed it to Bryant, who ran the break and was credited with a layup because of Mehmet Okur's goaltend.
As usual, the Lakers' poor bench play largely led the Jazz closing the score to 75-71 with 10:57 remaining in the fourth quarter. But Odom resolved that quickly, hitting two threes and then converting off a rebound and drawing the three-point play. Odom's nine consecutive points gave the Lakers a 81-72 lead with 9:05 left in the game, an advantage so safe that Vujacic played in the final 3:03 of the game after reportedly buying the coaches breakfast earlier in the day. Yep, everything, at least for one night, was right in Lakerdom.
The positive after effects were fully visible.
As Gasol walked out of the locker room, he remarked to Odom. "Congratulations." The two clasped hands. "Thank you. You had a great game," Odom said. "You too," Gasol responded as he walked out the door. Moments later, Bryant waxed nostalgic to reporters about his contract extension, leading ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky to joke to Bryant that it was good he signed the extension before his bad shooting night or else management would have reconsidered. Bryant burst out laughing before saying, "We're pretty good at negotiating."
That was a much different atmosphere than the team's recent five-game trip. Nonetheless, the Lakers have shown plenty of positive glimpses this season wedged between poor performances. Case in point, after starting off last week's trip with an impressive win against San Antonio, the Lakers followed suit with a 1-3 mark the rest of the trip. At least the Lakers made the first step toward erasing that poor habits with an impressive practice followed by an impressive victory. The next step involves doing that again Sunday against San Antonio.
"It really translated to the game today," Gasol said of Thursday's practice. "We have to make sure we continue to do that every single night."
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Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom and guard Kobe Bryant (24) kick back on the bench with ice packs on knees during the final minutes of a 106-92 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night at Staples Center. Credit: Danny Moloshok/Associated Press.