Lakers have nearly perfect execution in 120-91 victory over Utah Jazz
After their team's 120-91 victory Tuesday over the Utah Jazz, the Lakers' locker room, crowded with players and reporters alike, showed signs that the team is suddenly gelling.
Forwards Ron Artest, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter laughed out loud amid conversation about the win. Guard Kobe Bryant jokingly chided reporters for asking a "million questions" before agreeing to talk further, something that'd never happen after a rough stretch. And forward Lamar Odom openly wondered how often his successful floater before running out of bounds will be replayed on ESPN's SportsCenter ("It's up there.")
The Lakers' willingness to stay for a prolonged time to speak with the media, Bryant's teasing of Shannon Brown for bricking a fast-break dunk ("I found it funny") and Coach Phil Jackson granting the team the day off Wednesday were all reactions to what transpired on the floor.
The Lakers (33-13) extended Utah's (27-18) losing streak to five by locking in on concepts the team needs in order to three-peat:
Balanced offense: The Lakers' 62% mark and season-high 34 assists from the field reflected the engagement and attention to detail required for the likes of Bryant (21 points, six assists), Pau Gasol (20 points, nine-of-13 shooting), Andrew Bynum (19 points, six-of-nine shooting, 11 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (17 points, seven-of-eight shooting) all to reach double figures.
Defense: The Lakers holding Utah to 41.9%, forcing 17 turnovers and scoring 20 points in transition point to the team's improvement in communicating on defense, the frontline locking in on drivers to the basket and the backcourt holding the perimeter accountable.
Effort: The Lakers' ability to maintain a 17-game home winning streak against Utah without allowing the Jazz to rally from a double-digit deficit (a rarity when the two match up) is a sign the Lakers are taking regular-season games seriously.
"Obviously, we're getting deeper into the season," Gasol said. "We understand how important defense is in order to be successful as a team and to have a really good chance to win the championship."
The easy, and perhaps cliched, explanation for the Lakers' sharpness is critical comments former Lakers star and general manager Jerry West made regarding the team's age and inability to play defense. Even if the team won't admit it, The Logo's prodding has perhaps sparked some reaction. Or perhaps, as Jackson joked, he and the Lakers are trying harder because San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has now been tapped to coach the West All-Stars, a responsibility that requires the conference's best record and that Jackson didn't want. The more valid reasons have to do with the fact that the Lakers have maintained this increased focus for the last month, albeit in bunches.
"Numbers don't lie," Bryant said.
The numbers say this: Statistically, the Lakers entered their game against the Jazz faring well in several categories, including points allowed (an 11th best 96.4 points per game), opponent's field-goal percentage (43.8%, fourth in the league) and opponent's three-point field-goal percentage (33.9%, fifth overall). The marked improvement is also partly thanks to a new defensive scheme in the last month that focuses on forcing players toward the baseline instead of into the center of the lane, closing out on shooters and keeping the post players close to the basket.
Offensively, the Lakers have also shown improvement. Bryant has shot above 50% for the seventh consecutive game, a trend Jackson attributes to Bryant handling the ball 25% more (in his estimation) since Bynum's return to the starting lineup last month. Odom's 57.1% mark from the field marks his best statistical start in his seven seasons with the Lakers, and Jackson and Odom both point to his increased confidence with his outside shot. Gasol's decreased minutes from December to January (36.6, 35.6) have led to uptick in shooting percentage (49%, 51%). And Bynum has cracked double figures in 10 of the 12 games in January.
But that's not what's concerning the Lakers. It's consistently replicating the kind of focus displayed against the Jazz. It was there in signature wins last week against Oklahoma City and Denver but appeared absent in a loss to Dallas.
"On a night-to-night basis sometimes, we get a little bit lax," Bynum said. "But when we go out there and play hard, I think it's tough on teams."
Surely, other variables played into the Lakers' dominance against Utah, which entered the game after a 0-4 trip that Jackson believed left the Jazz "depressed." By contrast, the Lakers had the day off Saturday and two practices before hosting Utah, which now faces a second set of a back-to-back Wednesday against San Antonio.
"Live legs is the key to basketball in the NBA," Jackson said, summing up.
Rarely have the Lakers been able to bask in the nuances of a dominating performance, with the exception of the blowout over Cleveland earlier this month. But there Jackson stood at a lectern, expressing satisfaction in splitting time to Derek Fisher (23 minutes) and Steve Blake (23 minutes), something he wants to see more often but only when he feels the bench can sustain leads. Bryant waxed nostalgic about striving for improvement, despite being a 15-year superstar. And Gasol noticed the Lakers motivated in reacting to what was happening on the floor rather than to how it affected the scoreboard.
Just before the game, Jackson said he believed the Lakers are "very capable of being a good team." In return, the Lakers proved the message valid.
"It's a long race," Jackson said. "It's a really long run. You have to just pace it and know when it's important to turn it on and step it up another level."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: The Lakers' bench erupts in laughter after Shannon Brown misses an uncontested dunk during the second half of the Lakers' 120-91 victory over the Utah Jazz on Tuesday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times