Five things to take away from Lakers' 105-102 overtime victory over Golden State Warriors
1. Who knows when Kobe Bryant will be 100%, but he's clearly getting better: The Lakers have spent much of this preseason where they went 4-4 monitoring Bryant's minutes, aware that they don't want to force the issue regarding his surgically repaired right knee. After revealing that his knee is at about 60% following the Lakers' first exhibition game, Bryant hasn't provided an updated percentage. It's obvious, however, that Bryant's improved his rhythm and mobility as the preseason has progressed. The stat's don't lie: Bryant's 22 points on six-of-19 shooting in the Lakers' 105-102 overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday in Ontario put him with a 24-of-90 clip in the six exhibition games he's played. That's 26.7%.
The Lakers will need to manage a way to absorb those kind of shooting numbers from Bryant at the beginning of the season, considering he's still rehabbing and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson plans initially to limit his minutes. But the public shouldn't equate Bryant's preseason struggles into possible misfortunes for the Lakers in June. He's not injured. He's coming off summer surgery. So the tales about needing around-the-clock treatment and draining his knee in the playoffs isn't something that will be duplicated, assuming Bryant doesn't suffer another injury.
I wondered whether Bryant would push the issue too much this pre-season and allow his well-intentioned competitive spirit to kick into rehabbing the knee right away. But he and Jackson agreed the right approach entailed going through a gradual process. I wondered whether it was necessary for Bryant to play 27 minutes in the Lakers' game in Spain against FC Barcelona and there were instances he shot the ball too much. But all in all, Bryant showed progress.
Interestingly, Bryant's gradual rehab mirrored his performance Friday against Golden State where he started off slowly and began establishing a rhythm late in the game. After missing three of his first four shots, Bryant ended the first half making two of his next three. He missed the next three of four attempts and sat out to start the fourth quarter, leading many to believe he was done for the night. But with the Lakers making a rally, Bryant reentered with 6:39 remaining. He missed three of his four shots, but his layup and four free throws pointed to Bryant's improved mobility and aggressiveness in creating his own shot.
Bryant will have to get to the point where he's knocking down shots on a consistent basis, but the fact that his movement has improved each game clearly shows he's on his way. The Lakers just don't know how fast his improvement will accelerate from here.
2. The Lakers' No. 1 concern involves health: I'm not just talking about Bryant's rehabilitation, which is obviously important. But there's plenty of other players to monitor as well. Lakers center Andrew Bynum says he should return by late November, but that's coming from himself and isn't an actual medical prognosis. Lakers forward Luke Walton aggravated his right hamstring Friday against Golden State. Lakers center Theo Ratliff sat out with a swollen left knee. Lakers forward Lamar Odom also missed the game because of a sore left thumb and tight back, though he told reporters it was just precautionary and he'd play in Tuesday's season opener against Houston. Lakers forward Derrick Caracter just returned to the lineup after missing three games because of back spasms. And, of course, there's Jackson, who missed the last two games because of flu-like symptoms.
With exception to Bynum, all the other injuries at this point aren't considered long term so it's not as if the Lakers will suddenly regret letting go all of their training camp invitees. But it's something that will surely make Jackson even more cognizant of minutes. It'll also mean that each Laker will need to be ready and flexible to play multiple positions, if need be.
3. The Lakers need Lamar Odom to have a solid season: Odom sat Friday's game and it clearly showed how much the Lakers will need him this season. He ended the preseason as the best Laker out there on the floor, with his 10.9 points and team-leading 10.7 rebounds in a team-leading 31.7 minutes a contest clearly showing that his experience in the FIBA World Championships kept him in shape, sharpened his focus and improved his leadership. Beyond the ability to play up top and in the post, Odom relentlessly cleaned the glass, fired outlet passes and ran the floor. There's no doubt Golden State's 47-35 rebounding margin wouldn't have been as high had Odom been out there.
Obviously Bryant's effectiveness will prove to be the most important factor for the Lakers this season. No one can really duplicate Bryant's scoring mentality, work ethic and ability to hit clutch shots. But Odom's skill at so many things, such as hitting outside shots, penetrating in the post, using a wingspan to dominate the boards and assuming a positive presence in the locker room, would go to waste if he's not healthy or can't carry the preseason success he's built so far.
4. The Lakers bench looks better than last year's reserves: Last season's bench carried an infamous reputation for blowing leads and making untimely mistakes. This season's bench has infused energy and eagerness into a team that will have to find ways to avoid complacency during a long season. Though all the newcomers in Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Ratliff, Devin Ebanks and Caracter are still ironing out mastery of the triangle offense, every one of them plays as if they want to help the team any way they can. Add in Shannon Brown's preseason consistency in outside shooting and Sasha Vujacic's resurgence following a concussion, and you have a unit that actually brought the team back into contention against Golden State.
The Lakers entered the fourth quarter trailing 79-69 and largely played as if they wanted to end the preseason and walk away without any further injury. Instead, the Lakers' second unit kept slashing the lead. Ebanks dunked off a put-back from Vujacic's missed jumper to cut the lead to 83-77 with 9:52 remaining. Vujacic made a 21-footer to cut the deficit to 83-79 with 9:14 left. Caracter's maneuvering under the baskeet for a one-handed slam gave the Lakers an 87-85 lead with 6:50 remaining. Vujacic's up-and-under shot pushed the Lakers ahead, 89-88, with 4:28 remaining. And Brown's 24-foot three-pointer with 30 seconds left tied the score at 98-98.
The Lakers chat featured some debate on whether the starters should return, or if the bench should be given a chance to secure the win. As much as the bench deserves credit for the comeback, it's good Lakers temporary head coach Brian Shaw inserted the starters because it gave them incentive to play with better focus. Bryant's six fourth-quarter points and Artest's two late-game baskets surely infused some energy for the Lakers' starters.
If the bench can consistently inject some hunger and help to protect the leads, the Lakers should be rested and focused enough to three-peat.
5. The Lakers' defense needs to improve: Part of this points to the Lakers just wanting to end the preseason as quickly as possible. Part of this points to the Lakers lacking Bynum's length and size that intimidate players from driving in the lane. And part of this points to Odom's and Ratliff's absence.
But the Lakers also lacked any semblance of interior defense because of effort. Warriors guard Monta Ellis exploded for 41 points on 16-of-30 shooting,Golden State manufactured 42 points in the paint and the Warriors outrebounded the Lakers, 41.2%. Part of that points to Derek Fisher and Brown getting beat on the perimeter. Lots of it points to Pau Gasol's seemingly disinterest in putting in any defensive effort. But lots of these lapses point to the Lakers not performing help defense. The Lakers have added defensive toughness with Bryant, Artest, Barnes, Ebanks and Ratliff, but that pays off mostly on individual matchups.
This has been so much of a problem that Jackson has stopped practice numerous times to go over concepts on defensive rotations, but it's still not registering. The Lakers will need to sharpen that area soon.
Stat of the Night: 53 -- That's the amount of minutes Ellis played. I understand Stephen Curry sat out because of a sprained right ankle he suffered Thursday against the Lakers. But there's no need to play someone 53 minutes in a preseason game.
Quote of the Night: "You can't really think about how long it's going to be or how hard it's going to be because it will be. We're excited and we want to start off strong." -- Lakers forward Pau Gasol to KCAL's John Ireland on the regular season starting.
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Photo: Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and assistant coach Brian Shaw discuss strategy during an exhibition game against the Warriors on Friday night in Ontario. Credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Photo: Lakers forward Derrick Caracter and Warriors forward Jeff Adrien go after a rebound in the second half of an exhibition game on Friday night in Ontario. Credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.
Photo: Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic challenges the driving layup of Warriors guard Monta Ellis in the first half of Friday night's exhibition game in Ontario. Ellis played all 53 minutes in the game and scored 41 points. Credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.