Lakers set the right tone following All-Star break with 104-80 victory over Atlanta Hawks
With so much surrounding the Lakers' three-game losing streak, the NBA All-Star break and a trade deadline that could spur different emotions and reactions, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gathered the team together. He then summed up the first game following the break in as succinct terms as possible.
"It's a roll-call game," Bryant and other teammates said he described the Lakers' first contest following the All-Star game Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks. It's a matchup that usually leaves Coach Phil Jackson uncertain on how each team would handle the extended weekend of rest, parties and overall separation from basketball. Since the Lakers underwent such scrutiny among fans, media and most importantly themselves regarding their nagging inconsistencies, a three-game losing streak, sixth place overall standing in the Western Conference and the upcoming trade deadline, Bryant emphasized that the Lakers solely worrying about perfecting their role will help alleviate all the problems.
The 104-80 victory Tuesday over the Hawks reflected just that. Nearly every starter ranging from the usual in Kobe Bryant (20 points on five of 11 shooting, five assists) and Pau Gasol (14 points on four of nine shooting and 10 rebounds) to the unusual in Ron Artest (11 points on four of seven shooting) and Derek Fisher (10 points on three of seven shooting) each cracked double digits. Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who had complained earlier that the timing of his jumping remains an issue, finished with only five points on one of three shooting but made up for it with a season-high 15 rebounds along with three blocks and the consistency the Lakers need on help defense.
It turns out Bryant's message registered.
"It was about making sure everybody was here," he said. "Emotionally checked in, physically checked in and ready to do their jobs. Everybody on this team has a role and has a job. It's important at this stage of the season to do that."
The Lakers enter Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden with plenty of rest, considering that every starter except Gasol sat out the fourth quarter and enjoyed sequences featuring the bench: Joe Smith's turnaround jumper that gave the Lakers a 94-68 lead with 4:51 left prompted Bryant, Fisher and Bynum to clap and Artest to stand up and cheer. Devin Ebank's explosive alley-oop dunk that widened the gap to 100-74 with 2:01 remaining caused Bryant to stand up and wave his towel.
But the Lakers enter their back-to-back with a healthy dose of skepticism for reasons beyond their troubled history at the Rose Garden. Jackson may have liked that the victory kept the Lakers (39-19) in third place with a 1 1/2 game lead over Oklahoma City (36-19), staying two games within Dallas (40-16) and moving ever so slightly behind San Antonio (46-10) after losing Tuesday to Chicago. But it's one game and it's not going to suddenly ease all anxieties, such as Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeting before the game, "@Lakers need to make a small trade before the deadline to make a run for the playoffs."
Also, Jackson's contention that the first game after the All-Star break typically presents little energy and poor decision-making equally applied to both his team and the Hawks, which featured the beginning of a five-game trip shooting 36.6%, trailing by as many as 29 points and going on a 4-minute, 34-second scoring drought in the latter part of the second quarter, statistics Gasol argued were "hard to say" if they spoke more to the Lakers' defense or Atlanta's shooting. Jackson, as he's done many times before, emphasized to his team not to equate a dominating win against Atlanta into justifying a belief that it can flip a switch, ticking off different personnel, traveling and unfriendly arenas.
"It's not just like, 'OK now we're back 100%'," Jackson said. "We've done this before and we know the next game can be a game we're not proud of.... It's about consistently building a game and having that ability to be purposeful in what we're trying to do."
One thing Bryant's trying to have the Lakers do in measuring the team's progression for the remaining 24 games entails minimizing mistakes. In that department, the Lakers still have work to do. They committed 18 turnovers, appeared stagnant for part of the second quarter and Artest started out with all-too-typical sequences that both make the Lakers want to trade him even more and other teams to want him even less.
He couldn't catch a simple pass from Fisher and the ball went out of bounds. After the entire Staples Center crowd gasped when he received the ball, Artest airballed a three-pointer. And Artest demonstrated his ugly movement with a careless offensive foul. But Bryant's argument about minimizing mistakes also entails having the ability to correct them. Artest did just that by converting on a fast-break layup, stopping a fast break and converting on a pull-up jumper.
"I don't really focus on that," Artest said. "I just always pay attention to what's happening next. That's how I'm able to stay focused. I don't worry about what happened about before, yesterday or the past."
As for the rest of the team, the Lakers addressed the mistakes during a 3 1/2 hour practice on Monday, something that's atypical for a veteran team consumed with staying healthy and pacing themselves. That included several issues. Start off with the proper energy: Bryant's deflection, Fisher's three pull-up jumpers and Bryant's own pull-up epitomized that in an 8-0 start. Stay active on defense: The Lakers' constant communication, Bynum's size presence and the team's improved rhythm from the outside (six of 15 from three-point range) spurred the Lakers into solidifying themselves as a solid half-court defensive team and not one that has to constantly chase back teams in transition, with Jackson summing up: "The key to winning is about defense." And ensure proper ball movement: The Lakers finished with 20 assists to their 32 field goals and everyone on the roster played and scored.
"The energy was going to be there. We knew that, especially with the way we ended the road trip," Gasol said. "It was just a matter of executing and staying focused."
All these developments may simply just be another example demonstrating the Lakers' pendulum swing between strong and poor performances. Or it could be the mark of something new. For the time being, however, the Lakers at least made the proper steps in ensuring that they look like a much different team than the one that entered the All-Star break by snapping Cleveland's 26-game losing streak.
It certainly was a roll-call game and the Lakers appropriately made sure they all were in attendance.
"That' s how it has to go for the rest of the season," said guard Shannon Brown, who added 15 points on six of nine shooting and a fair collection of dunks. "If people aren't playing their roles, it's not going to work."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, left, drives around forward Josh Smith during the first half of Tuesday's game. Credit: Jeff Gross / Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Bynum dunks during the first half of Tuesday's game against the Atlanta Hawks. Credit: Jeff Gross / Getty Images
Photo: Bryant puts up a three-point shot over Atlanta center Joe Johnson during the Lakers' 104-80 victory Tuesday at Staples Center. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.