Five things to take away from Lakers' 107-97 victory over Denver Nuggets
The Lakers, including Artest himself, have established that Artest should measure his performance more on how he limits opponents from scoring than scoring himself. But Artest demonstrated in the Lakers' 107-97 victory Friday over the Denver Nuggets how much of a difference he can make when he hones in on both concepts. It's impressive enough to hold Carmelo Anthony to 23 points on 10-of-24 shooting, a big improvement than the 32 points Melo dropped on 14-of-25 shooting in Denver's 118-112 win on Nov. 11 against the Lakers. It's quite another to tie with Pau Gasol as the team's leader in scoring with a season-high 19 points on an eight-of-12 shooting clip. But really, the overall concept regarding the Lakers centered on balance. The first quarter only featured Artest (four-of-five shooting) playing with any sort of rhythm, while the rest of the team either forced shots or missed open attempts, finishing with nine of 23.
Some wondered why Luke Walton and Steve Blake remained in the game for the entire second quarter, while Artest and Derek Fisher sat. But the rest helped Artest keep fresh. Once he returned in the second half, it appeared he didn't miss a beat. He performed an effective pump fake that gave him space for a mid-range jump shot. He recovered a nearly mishandled shot and drained an open baseline jumper. And he blocked Melo's seven-foot runner that led to a Kobe Bryant dunk.
Artest rightfully doesn't need to be the Lakers' main offensive option. But when the rest of the team isn't executing properly, it's beneficial for them to know they have reliable help. Then when everything functions better, he can serve as one piece, no matter how big or small, to help keep the balance and efficiency high.
2. Bryant masters the facilitating and scoring role well
Bryant took only four shots in the first half, opting to set up his teammates more than trying to score at will. But with the Lakers down 52-49 at halftime, Bryant took it upon himself initially to help set the tone in the third quarter. His 18 points Friday night on eight-of-15 shooting, seven assists and six rebounds clearly reflect his dedication the last three games to playing facilitator role, and it continues a five-game stretch beforehand where he shot 55% from the field.
The way he put up those numbers tell more of the story, however. After spending halftime working on his shooting, Bryant scored 14 of his 18 points in the third quarter. It was a period that showcased plenty of vintage Kobe moments. He nailed an 18-footer to open the third quarter. He nailed two consecutive baseline jumpers. He threw a jump pass into Lamar Odom for an easy bucket. He threw an alley-oop lob to Gasol. And he dove for a loose ball that forced a turnover.
3. Andrew Bynum overcomes a slow start
Bynum entered the game uncertain how he'd feel after hyperextending his right elbow in the Lakers' 109-100 loss on Wednesday to Dallas. As a result, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, reported KCAL-9's John Ireland, had Bynum wear three layers of a makeshift wrap around his elbow. Bynum contended afterward that his elbow didn't hinder his game, but his zero of four start suggested otherwise.
4. The Lakers maintain a strong inside game
It appeared Gasol would remain passive after opting for a mid-range jumper, despite Kenyon Martin giving him some open space. But that proved to be the exception more than the rule, a plus considering how inconsistent Gasol had become during the last month. Though some of that pointed to the Lakers' inconsistency in establishing the inside game (Gasol scored 17 of his 23 points in the first half against Dallas), some of it pointed to Gasol avoiding physical play. But the strong inside presence from Gasol (19 points on eight-of-14 shooting and 13 rebounds) and Odom (18 points on nine-of-14 shooting and 10 rebounds) showed neither backed down from the physical demands required. Gasol exemplified that most notably when he threw a high bank shot over Martin and finished the third quarter with an offensive putback. Against a team that thrives on physical play, it proved beneficial the Lakers didn't back away.
5. The Lakers improve in the second half on defense
It appeared to be the same old story for the Lakers, allowing their opponent to run in transition with its speedy backcourt exploiting them as they lacked the necessary discipline to hone in on defensive concepts. That's why the coaching staff stressed to stop allowing former UCLA standout Arron Afflalo open looks from the perimeter, Ireland reported. Too often the Lakers worried about shutting off inside penetration by giving him open outside looks, as indicated by Afflalo's 16 points on six of eight shooting. That all changed in the second half. The Lakers held Afflalo to six points, Artest remained glued on Anthony and the defense limited the Nuggets only to four fast-break points by getting back on defense. Other than the Lakers' first-half defensive inconsistency and Shannon Brown's continuous struggles (20 points in the last four games), there's really nothing left to criticize.
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Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to cut off the drive of Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony in the second half Friday night at Denver. Credit: Chris Schneider / Associated Press