Lakers' ugly 114-106 overtime victory over Houston Rockets showcases growth in closing out games
Whether it was the Staples Center crowd serenading the Lakers with boos, General Manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged consideration for making trades or Magic Johnson questioning the state of the Lakers, plenty of signs both on the court and behind the scenes revealed the Lakers are a work in progress.
The latest example: a 114-106 overtime victory over the Houston Rockets in a game that never should've gone past extra regulation if not for the team's frontline leaving Luis Scola unmarked for an easy basket with 1:56 to play, if not for Kobe Bryant missing two consecutive jumpers to close the game despite Lamar Odom waving his hands frantically at the top of the key and if not for playing through the stretches that only validated Kupchak's contention the Lakers' execution needs to change.
That's why perspective needs to be in order before praising the Lakers avoiding their first three-game home losing streak since Feb. 2007 against a team with a 22-28 mark, 9-18 road mark and a season-ending injury to Yao Ming. But here's where the Lakers showed growth. In overtime. There they made the defensive stops in holding Houston to 40% shooting. There they featured the balanced offense that appeared through most of the game, became absence in the fourth and resurged in extra regulation with the balance between Bryant (32 points on 13 of 25 shooting and 11 assists) and Pau Gasol (26 points on 10 of 20 shooting and 16 rebounds) taking full form with the duo each scoring six points in overtime. The progress in closing out games, an effort the Lakers couldn't do Sunday against Boston, may be small in measure, insignificant because of the opponent and prove fleeting as quickly as the Lakers' next game Thursday against San Antonio, but that's kind of the point.
"It's a matter of getting our legs underneath us again," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of the Lakers' victory, which brought them 6 1/2 games behind San Antonio (40-8) after losing Tuesday to Portland. "Playing a game down the stretch, it's important in this business to be able to play down the stretch and win close games."
It marked a small nuance of progress in a quest that Jackson, Bryant and Gasol have acknowledged proved frustrating that the team hasn't yielded immediate consistency. That's not an excuse for complacency, although it's been an issue, so much as the understanding that perfecting nuances and pushing the envelope requires a forward-thinking and hungry attitude. And in overtime, they executed the way they talked about in a pregame conversation in the Laker room that emphasized more ball movement and team play.
That talk continued with communication between Gasol and Bryant. It resulted in Bryant finding Gasol open for a hook shot in the post that gave the Lakers a 104-102 lead with 2:28 remaining. It entailed Bryant firing the ball to Gasol as he cut into the lane. When Gasol missed the layup after drawing a foul on Scola, both Bryant and Gasol high fived and continued supporting each other.
"It works well," Gasol said. "Every time i communicate it has a very good effect and very good impact. it means we're both tuned in and we both try to stay on the same page."
The talk continued when Bryant passed the ball in mid-air as Gasol fought through traffic. It resulted in a layup that gave the Lakers a 108-106 lead with 1:04 left. The effort didn't just contrast Bryant justifiably scoring 41-points on 16 of 29 shooting against Boston, a time none of the offense appeared engaged enough to get involved and an effort both Jackson and Gasol acknowledged reflected his passivity. But what the Lakers' victory against Houston showed was that a direct line of communication will help ensure the offensive harmony both Gasol and Bryant want.
"He's an easy going and selfless person, makes passes and takes shots as it comes to him," Bryant said. "But sometimes he just has to go get it. I'd love to see that from him tonight and he did it. He agrees. That'll take his game to a whole other level, and ours as well because ultimately the goal is to win a championship. Everything that I communicate and every message we talk about the team is all about that goal."
And the talk continued when Odom played a setup man role by directing the offense up top, enabling Bryant to move off the ball. It resulted in Bryant working off a screen and finishing with a layup that gave the Lakers a 110-106 lead with 38.3 seconds left. What's most impressive about Odom's role is he gladly took a backseat and facilitated at a time he could've sulked. Odom grabbed an offensive rebound off Bryant's missed jumper later in the fourth quarter, only to see Bryant attempt a baseline jumper off a double time and ignoring Odom frantically waving his hands at the top of the key. Yet, Odom reacted in a way that'd prove useful for anyone still trying to figure out how to play with Bryant.
"Yeah I remember that. He's the best finisher in the game. It's up to him. I don't feel in any way. I've seen Kobe shoot the ball over guys and make it. I let him know I'm there, but it's up to him to make the play."
But it was also up to the Lakers to make sure they played properly with him. Jackson noted they waited until the offense set up before passing to Bryant, who in turn found enough open cutters to record seven first-quarter assists, helping Derek Fisher and Ron Artest to improve from a combined two of 16 clip against Boston to a seven of 12 mark against Houston and planting the seeds for the Lakers to feel more involved in overtime.
"Obviously if they're making shots they feel bettte about themselves," Bryant said. "But the defense dictates that. You can't get assists if they don't make shots."
Odom surely made those shots, including when he nailed a 14-footer, 17-footer and hook shot in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter that brought them ahead 98-94 with 1:03 remaining. But like with most things involving this game, nothing proved completely satisfactory. In a game Odom filled in for Andrew Bynum in the starting lineup because of a bone bruise in his left knee with a season-high 20 rebounds, Odom began with a two of nine first-half clip and missed a three-pointer on the final play in regulation. In a game the Lakers improved their defense in overtime, Odom faulted poor communication through the first four quarters, which included Bryant sagging on Kevin Martin (30 points on eight of 15 shooting and four of eight from three-point range, Scola (24 points on 12 of 20 shooting) exploiting the interior defense that appeared far less disciplined without Bynum and Aaron Brooks (16 points on seven of 19 shooting) providing another reminder the speed the Lakers often lack.
But as the Lakers are starting to realize, these season-long problems will take time in completely solving. Houston's victory provided at least provided a start, albeit in ugly fashion.
"They'd like it to happen faster," Jackson said, "but the instincts aren't there right now. Tonight was a really good example."
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Photo: Kobe Bryant points down court after hitting a short jumper with 39 seconds left in overtime to give the Lakers a 110-106 leads during Tuesday's victory over Houston at Staples Center. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, talks with forward Lamar Odom during the second half of the Lakers' 114-106 overtime victory Tuesday. Credit: Jeff Gross / Getty Images