5 things to take away from Lakers' 98-95 pre-season victory over Sacramento Kings
1. Kobe Bryant doesn't shoot well, but still shows improvement: This will forever be the most important thing to monitor until the pre-season games end. And what did we learn? Well, Bryant's seven-point performance on two in 10 shooting in 19 minutes confirmed Phil Jackson's assessment this week that Bryant's not game ready, but that doesn't mean Bryant didn't make progress. He appeared to have more movement and made an effort to contribute to make up for his poor shooting numbers.
Nonetheless, it's good Jackson just about kept to his pledge that he'd play Bryant between 16 and 18 minutes and that the Black Mamba didn't force himself to play more. With 8:50 left in the fourth quarter, he already had his knees iced and called it a night. Bryant, who didn't wear a sleeve on his right knee, continued to lack the necessary lift and bounce to look back in form and it's probably going to take all of pre-season for it to come back.
As is often the case, Bryant forced several shots. But there were also good things to like from Bryant's effort considering he found other ways to contribute. His four rebounds and two assists aren't eye popping. But some of the plays that led to those numbers revealed a determination in wanting to make a difference.
When Pau Gasol missed a 14 footer from the far side in the first quarter, Bryant raced into the lane, cut around Kings guard Antoine Wright and weaved through Sacramento forward Jason Thompson to save the ball from going out of bounds and grabbing the rebound. Bryant threw the ball up top to Gasol, who cut into the lane. Gasol moved the ball up to Lamar Odom, who quickly passed to Derek Fisher on the near-side. In mid air, Fisher hit Ron Artest for an open corner three-pointer, cutting the early gap to 10-8. Early in the third quarter, Bryant snuck into the lane and tipped in Artest's missed layup. Two minutes later, Bryant grabbed a defensive rebound, led the break and appeared as if he was going to drive through the lane. In mid air, he fired a bullet toward the far corner to Artest, whose three-pointer gave the Lakers a 56-53 lead with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
This isn't something I'd be raving about in normal circumstances. If Bryant's lift and shot doesn't improve, no one's going to laud him for playing a utility role. In this case that it's a pre-season game, however, Bryant's play against Sacramento shows he's making progress.
2. Artest should get the key to every city - The easy explanation for Artest's 18-point performance on seven of 11 shots, including four of five from three-point range: His receiving the key to Las Vegas for his charitable efforts involving mental health issues gave him the ability to hit from the outside. The real explanation: Artest's performances served as a by product of his increased confidence, mobility and slimmer figure. As was the case in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Artest became the hero on a night that showcased a struggling but determined Bryant. The circumstances are much much different, this being an exhibition game and all, but this game confirmed my belief that fans are going to see Artest with much better judgement this season. Artest won't necessarily always have a hot shooting night, and he won't always be expected to do so. But he'll consistently help the offensive fluidity instead of disrupt it. Oh, and don't forget about the defense.
3. Lakers showed great ball movement: You don't need to watch the game to know the Lakers emphasized teamwork against the Kings. You can see it in the individual performances Gasol (18 points on seven of 15 shooting, 12 rebounds), Shannon Brown (17 points on six of 12 shooting), Devin Ebanks (10 points on four of nine shooting), Lamar Odom (seven points, nine rebounds and six assists) and Steve Blake (five assists). The total effort resulted in the Lakers recording 26 assists on their 36 field goals.
This ball movement affected everyone in different ways. With Gasol carrying a heavy load (30 minutes) as Andrew Bynum recovers from his surgically repaired right knee, it's necessary to actively look for him in the post. Once he received the ball, Gasol displayed his nifty footwork and effective mid-range shot that makes such a formidable threat (four of eight from the free-throw line could've been better, though).
Brown entertained the Las Vegas crowd when his one-handed slam off Odom's cross-court outlet pass gave the Lakers a 38-33 lead with 5:24 remaining in the second quarter and he showcased his ability to drive to the basket, resulting in a five of five mark from the stripe. But Brown demonstrated growth by hitting four of his six field goals came from at least 20 feet, showing that Brown's more comfortable in broadening his game beyond highlight reels. He's expressed before how he doesn't want to be pigeon holed as just a dunker, but he often last season either appeared tentative or made careless turnovers when he tried to make a play. Part of that had to do with his thumb injury. Part of it had to do with growing pains. So even if this came on just a pre-season game, it could be a sign of things to come.
Ebanks before has shown a certain tentativeness with a shooting stroke that needs work. But he looked more comfortable against Sacramento. After throwing an entry pass to Ratliff, he cut toward the left block as Ratliff kicked the ball out. Ebanks then pulled up for an easy 14-footer, increasing the Lakers' lead to 36-28 with 6:52 remaining in the second quarter. He also drove to the lane with aggression, resulting in two layups and two of two mark from the free-throw line.
As much as Barnes admits he's not fully comfortable with the triangle, he impressed me with his court vision. On one play, he pump faked, drove to the left block, spun and then converted on a leaner. Moments later, Barnes found Theo Ratliff wide open on an inbounds pass. Meanwhile, Blake demonstrated how he knows the triangle well with timely passing and Odom continued his strong start in pre-season by literally doing everything.
The Lakers will have nights where it not everyone's contributing. But the Lakers at least showed against Sacramento their want to work together.
4. Too much inconsistency - The result doesn't matter. But fans may be scratching their heads wondering why this game wasn't decided until Gasol's length led to DeMarcus Cousins botching a three-pointer. OK, so Sasha Vujacic mishandled the rebound and the ball went out of bounds, making the result still in question until Antoine Wright traveled on the final play. There were other reasons as well. The Lakers' inconsistency is somewhat inevitable considering the Lakers are fielding combinations. Some of it has to do with Ratliff's and Derrick Caracter's poor play in the post. But a lot of it had to do with lapses in concentration
The Lakers went scoreless for the last 2:21 of the first quarter. The Kings went on an 8-0 run to take a 45-42 lead with 1:12 remaining in the second quarter. And the Lakers went without a field goal for the final 3:13 of the game.
5. Chippiness everywhere - There were plenty of signs that showed Sacramento and L.A. playing with an edge. And that doesn't count the questionable technical foul on Lamar Odom after raising his arms for getting called with a foul. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson lit into officials for a delay-of-game call. Both teams combined for 56 fouls. The Kings shot 31 of 43 free throws. Cousins picked up three fouls with 10:29 left in the second quarter. Barnes also drew a loose-ball foul on Landry after the two locked up and Landry knocked into a Laker girl (Ashley) (KCAL 9's John Ireland reported Ashley hit her head under the scorer's table, but that she was fine). The Lakers will need to be more disciplined for when the games count.
Stat of the Night: 26, the number of assists the Lakers recorded.
Quote of the Night: "I like the Lakers. I like the Kings. I like Miami. They're a whole bunch of good teams now." -- Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson during the Lakers-Kings game after KCAL-9's John Ireland asked him what is his favorite NBA team.
Photos: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, drives around Sacramento forward Antoine Wright during the Lakers' 98-95 preseason victory Wednesday. Shannon Brown finishes on a one-handed dunk. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images