Five things to take away from Lakers' 114-106 victory over Phoenix Suns
1.Kobe Bryant continues to make progress on his right knee. - This isn't because Bryant scored a team-leading 25 points on a nine of 19 clip in the Lakers' 114-106 victory Friday over the Phoenix Suns. It's because his minutes (34) and involvement in other areas (seven rebounds, three assists) shows he's returning to his normal self. Another sign that Bryant's making progress is he seemed to enjoy matching Grant Hill's hot shooting (21 points on 10 of 17 shooting) and testing the foul limits. The next development I'm interested in seeing entails how Bryant's body responds next week when the Lakers play four games, including Sunday against Golden State, Tuesday against Memphis, Wednesday at Sacramento and Friday against Toronto.
2. Pau Gasol shows leadership All pre-season Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has prodded Gasol into taking charge of the team. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, he gathered together Ron Artest, Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown and Steve Blake together and appeared to give them advice. The Lakers entered the quarter leading 90-79, but no lead against Phoenix ever feels safe, considering the Suns shot 44 of 93, went nine of 24 from three-point range and featured five players cracking double digits, including Hill (21), center Robin Lopez (18), shooting guard Jason Richardson (17), backup guard Goran Dragic (15) and Jared Dudley (10) as well as nine assists from Steve Nash. Gasol helped the Lakers secure the win by dishing out five of his team-high nine assists in the fourth quarter, including plays that led to two Barnes' three-pointers, feeding Bryant and Lamar Odom inside for layups and finding Derek Fisher open for a jumper. Oh, and he also contributed with 21 points on 10 of 17 shooting with eight rebounds, falling short of the triple double.
Gasol's shooting stroke looked very smooth, resulting in numerous mid-range J's. His footwork remained unstoppable resulting in a left hook over Lopez. And his patience in letting the play develop while posting up paid off numerous times.
3. Lamar Odom isn't missing a beat - KCAL-9 Lakers analyst Stu Lantz correctly observed that some fans take for Odom's contributions for granted. It's easy to fall into the trap with this game because he's provided all throughout the training camp. He had a field day against Hedo Turkoglu in the post and on the perimeter, scoring 18 points on eight of 12 shooting, along with 17 rebounds and five assists. After nailing a three at the top of the three in the second quarter, he grabbed a rebound and fired an outlet pass, resulting in a Shannon Brown layup. He drove the lane one time and immediately noticed traffic so he kicked it out to Bryant for the open shot. And he relentlessly owned the boards against an undersized Phoenix team, most notably when he grabbed a rebound off an Artest missed shot and converted on an off-balance layup.
Although he's recorded seven turnovers in the first two games, Odom avoided getting into foul trouble against Phoenix, which prevented Jackson from having to play Theo Ratliff heavy minutes as well as give rookie Derrick Caracter playing time.
4. The Lakers continue to show trust in their bench - It's amazing to already see the work Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak put in this offseason already reap the benefits. Shannon Brown provided another energy game, scoring eight points on four of eight shooting, while Barnes had 11 points, including three of four from three-point range. Blake, Barnes and Brown entered the game late in the third quarter, and partly contributed to the team going on a 9-2 run to create a 87-79 cushion. Barne made a key defensive rebound that resulted in Blake converted from long-range, and Brown stole a poor Dragic pass resulting in a thunderous two-handed slam. Clearly, Jackson has confidence the bench can secure and widen leads, and it's also clear that Sasha Vujacic's zero minutes through two games will prove to be the norm rather than the exception this season.
5. The Lakers show potential to be a better three-point shooting team than last year: It's only two games so obviously this statistic remains far from definitive. But the Lakers' 47.9% mark from three-point range shows the team has better personnel to shoot from three-point range than last year's team, which went 34.1% from the field. Barnes finished three of four from three-point range, Blake and Bryant went two of five, Artest went three of eight, Fisher hit one of two and Odom nailed his sole attempt.
It's going to be a nice skill for the Lakers to acquire considering that wasn't their biggest strength last season, and it's going to give teammates fits considering how dangerous the Lakers frontline usually shows. The Lakers should approach the game, however, looking to get the ball in the lane and post first, before settling for outside. Working inside-out instead of outside-in will also help the Lakers' perimeter shooters develop a better rhythm as well.
Stat of the Night: 1,100. The number of wins for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who became the fastest coach in NBA history to achieve such a feat.
Quote of the Night: I'm a great rebounder." -- Lakers foward Lamar Odom to KCAL-9's John Ireland
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives down the lane against Suns point guard Goran Dragic in the first quarter Friday night. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press
Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom looks to pass over the defense of Suns forward Hedo Turkoglu in the first quarter Friday night. Credit: Matt York / Associated Press