5 things to take away from Lakers' 102-95 victory over Denver Nuggets
1. Kobe Bryant looks a lot better: It's not just because Bryant's shooting clip against Denver was much better. In 24 minutes, he scored 18 points on five-of-13 shooting (38%) and went eight of 11 from the free-throw line after going four of 28 (14.3%) in the first three exhibition games. Jackson and Bryant never used Bryant's shooting mark as a barometer of progress as he rehabbed from a surgically repaired right knee. What mattered was how fluid and active he looked in the game and eventually getting to that point where he had more lift on his shot. Bryant made a huge step forward in that department against Denver, appearing more aggressive and mobile than he had since training camp started.
"I feel silly talking about shooting percentages in a damn preseason game," said Bryant, who wore a padded sleeve on his right knee after not wearing one Wednesday against the Kings. "I felt a lot better. I haven't played since Game 7" of the 2010 NBA Finals.
After hitting his first shot of the night on a fade-away jumper to give the Lakers an 11-7 lead with 7:03 left in the first quarter, Bryant several times looked comfortable enough to play aggressively. He'd said he wanted strength and to get his game legs, and that appeared to be happening. After Lakers guard Derek Fisher missed a three-pointer, Lakers forward Matt Barnes tipped the ball out to Bryant up top. He then drove the lane, performed an up-and-under and was fouled by Denver point guard Chauncey Billups, a three-point sequence that gave the Lakers a 14-11 lead with 6:14 remaining in the first quarter.
In other sequences, Bryant saved the ball from going out of bounds, threw a cross-court pass to Lamar Odom and directed a screen-and-roll with Pau Gasol in which he spun through two defenders. He missed the layup on the latter play, but that didn't matter. The Black Mamba, who also had eight rebounds and five assists, just looked better.
"It was just a matter of time and a chance to get stronger and get a rhythm," Jackson said of Bryant, whom he plans to play from 20 to 22 minutes Sunday at Staples Center against the Jazz. But the coach didn't have any definite plans for Bryant's minutes after that. "It was a very slow game with an awful lot of free throws when he was out there on the floor. So there wasn't a lot of continuous running or pounding."
2. The Lakers had impressive team chemistry: The Lakers made sure not to make too much of it, considering it's the preseason. But for the second consecutive game, everyone seemed focused on ensuring teamwork and good ball movement. The Lakers had five players in double figures, including Bryant (18), Lamar Odom (14 points on seven-of-10 shooting, six rebounds and seven assists), Devin Ebanks (14 points on five-of-eight shooting), Pau Gasol (12 points on six-of-nine shooting) and Shannon Brown (11 points on four-of-nine shooting). They recorded 29 assists on 38 field goals. And everyone genuinely seemed to want to manufacture and wait for the right play to develop.
"They're starting to get a feel for playing together, and they're remembering some of the things they know how to do," said Jackson, though he lamented the team's 22 turnovers. "That's nice to see. I think they're making progress as a team."
There were several examples of that progress.
Bryant found Artest on a beautiful backdoor. Gasol converted on an easy lay-in after Fisher weaved on the far side through a lane of traffic. When Bryant flashed to the perimeter, Fisher faked a pass toward him and then connected with Gasol for another easy bucket. Lakers guard Steve Blake darted an alley-oop toward Odom. He also cut across the lane on one play, received an entry pass from Ebanks and then one-timed to Gasol for a jumper across the charity stripe.
"It's one preseason game, but it's something that's a good sign," Gasol said. "We want to continue to work along that line."
Other examples: An Odom entry pass to Bryant led to a vintage turnaround jumper over Billups. A Bryant down-screen for Odom threw off the Nuggets defense and allowed him to sink a corner jumper. When Artest received a bullet pass from Bryant and met a double team, Artest curled the ball around to Odom for the lay-in. Bryant's lob to Artest resulted in another easy bucket for Odom, who made a layup as he was falling to the ground.
"The strength of our team is our time together, our chemistry and our ability to read each other and just make plays," Odom said. "That's what we want to do -- move the ball and do all the small things that make us better."
Artest's nine-point effort on three-of-eight shooting with five rebounds and five assists indicated to Jackson that Artest "sees the game a lot better," although Jackson added, "It's not natural for him." Nonetheless, there were a few more instances when Artest appeared to be showing good habits.
A Fisher steal led to an Odom fast-break where he found Artest on the far corner. Instead of taking the three-pointer, Artest found Gasol inside. Later on, Fisher nailed a wide-open three-pointer after Artest threw a pass around the perimeter.
"I think the talent is there," Artest said. "Everybody can play, and everybody is unselfish."
3. Ebanks turns a corner: Perhaps it's a good thing Ebanks doesn't listen to what Jackson says to the media. Thus, he wasn't aware Jackson had lauded him for most of the preseason regarding his work ethic and defense, while adding that he could improve his footwork and his understanding of the offense. He apparently wasn't aware Jackson equated rookies to "lower than whale ..." in terms of their maturity level on and off the court. And he wasn't aware Jackson planned to play Ebanks at shooting guard because Sasha Vujacic's concussion kept him out at least through this weekend.
"I just need to keep working," Ebanks said. "Just don't think about it. Go out there and play the way I know how to play. I've been playing all my life."
It turns out the approach worked, as he scored 14 points on five-of-eight shooting in 24 minutes, a performance Jackson said showed Ebanks was "making progress." He actually only played at small forward, as fouls from Odom (four) and Barnes (three) prompted Jackson to play Artest some at power forward. But Ebanks was a quick study, something Vujacic should remember, even if this is just the preseason. Vujacic's role is minimum at best considering he's played behind both Bryant and Brown, and his injury certainly came at an inopportune time.
"We're going to try to get him used to playing that position," Jackson said before the game. "Not only does it give a total scope of what we do, but it gives him an option to play another position on the floor in case we need it."
The Lakers will have a better understanding how Ebanks plays at shooting guard, possibly as early as Sunday against Utah, but for now, the Lakers have nothing but positive things to say about his quick acclimation and work ethic.
"Devin's doing a great job," Bryant said. "He's playing within himself. He's making all the right plays. He's getting all the hustle points, and he's making timely jumpers, and defensively he's active."
4. The Lakers' depth is an issue: The Lakers already knew they'd have to field different combinations considering Bryant's limitations, Andrew Bynum's absence as he recovers from surgery to his right knee and Luke Walton's absence. But the Lakers' play against Denver further exposed them. With Odom picking up fouls (four), as well as Barnes (three), Theo Ratliff (three) and Derrick Caracter (three), Jackson inserted Artest mostly at power forward and Ebanks strictly at small forward.
It was a depleted lineup, but it wasn't that noticeable considering Denver's Carmelo Anthony sat out, for some rest, as did Kenyon Martin (surgery on his left knee patella tendon; out indefinitely), Chris Anderson (recovering from surgery on his right knee patella tendon; out indefinitely) and Al Harrington (suffered a partial tear of the left plantar fascia against Portland Oct. 8).
"Right now, I don't feel like we're very deep at all," Jackson said. "Neither Drew Naymick nor Derrick Caracter have the experience to feel like we're deep enough in that department. Hopefully we'll be OK."
5. The Lakers' defensive rotations remain an issue: Numerous times this preseason, Jackson has stopped practice because of defensive lapses. He's devoted most of the sessions to defense, feeling the team's more in tune with running the triangle than with defensive rotations.
That's been the primary reason why the Lakers' bench has blown a double-digit fourth-quarter lead for the second consecutive game. What started out as a 85-68 fourth-quarter Lakers lead quickly dwindled to a 94-91 advantage with 5:08 remaining in the game. Against Sacramento on Wednesday, the Lakers yielded 36 fourth-quarter points.
Unlike last year, the bench doesn't show many selfish tendencies. But they're having trouble defending the perimeter and locking down on transition baskets.
"They had plenty of opportunities to close that gap," Jackson said of Denver.
Stat of the Night: 28 - Number of assists the Lakers recorded. Surely a sign of good teamwork and ball movement.
Quote of the Night: "Kobe is on top of the universe. Out of all the players on Pluto and Jupiter, Kobe's on top of that. He's on another level." -- Lakers forward Ron Artest
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Kobe Bryant blows past Denver's Gary Forbes on a drive to the basket in the second quarter Saturday night at Staples Center. Derek Fisher has his drive cut off by Nuggets big men Gary Forbes and Nene in the first quarter. Derrick Caracter battles Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo and center Eric Boateng for a rebound in the fourth quarter. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times