Five things to take away from Lakers' 112-104 victory over the Clippers
With hopes to post Andrew Bynum in the paint, Bryant pointed in all directions for him to establish position in a late fourth-quarter play. Bryant was unsatisfied with Bynum's base so he yelled "No," went one on one and made a pull-up jumper. That play in the Lakers' 112-104 victory Friday over the Clippers epitomized how he recorded 37 points on 11-of-21 shooting with a team-high six assists.
The aforementioned jumper gave the Lakers a 101-93 lead with 4:07 remaining, but there were plenty of fourth-quarter plays he made that helped the Lakers secure a victory. His steal on Clippers forward Al-Farouq Aminu led to Derek Fisher connecting with him on a fast-break dunk, widening the gap to 91-85 with 7:27. On the next possession, Bryant beat Eric Gordon baseline and found Gasol inside for a four-foot jump shot. And his 13-foot runner gave the Lakers a 105-99 advantage with 2:41 remaining.
"I'm just cranking it up," Bryant said after the Lakers' (52-20) victory gave them a 1 1/2 lead over Dallas for second place in the West improved their mark to 14-1 since the All-Star break. "I'm starting to get into playoff mode, playoff form and being more aggressive."
What distinguished Bryant wasn't his fourth-quarter presence, however. He maintained his scoring dominance with a controlled mindset. His work off the ball and off the dribble set himself up for fadeaway jumpers, runners in the lane and mid-range shots, with nine of his 11 field goals coming off those shots. By no means did Bryant remain passive from attacking the rim. His season-high 14-of-17 mark from the free-throw line revealed his ability to attack, something he's sorely lacked. And he remained open to connecting with teammates, many of them on jump passes, so long as they were open.
"The two days off came at the right time," Bryant said, in regards to treating his left ankle sprain and surgically repaired right knee with weight training, massage therapy and stretching. "I was able to chase those guys tonight."
Gasol had plenty of reason to want to score beyond maintaining his usual efficiency. He pledged to donate $1,000 for every point he scored to help victims affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, an initiative Magic Johnson then pledged to match. Gasol's 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting yielded $52,000.
The effort came on a night when Gasol demonstrated his consistency in hitting mid-range jumpers, including a first-quarter stretch where he hit four consecutive shots. The effort proved arguably as efficient as his newly created Twitter account, which accumulated 19,744 followers as of midnight in only seven hours.
"I look for those shots," Gasol said. "I space out and get those shots consistently. I think they're very effective when I'm from that range. I'm very comfortable catching and shooting from that distance."
2. Chris Kaman threatened to fight Derek Fisher outside following late-game ejection. The stories differ depending on who you ask. Fisher contended Kaman set illegal picks all game long, setting up both of them to collide near the three-point line where Kaman hit Fisher's head with 28 seconds remaining in the game. That in each of them earning technicals and Kaman getting ejected. Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro argued Fisher threw an elbow at Kaman, who then pointed at Fisher and suggested through body language that he meet by the loading dock afterward. The Times' T.J. Simers joked that Fisher has a date after the game.
"My wife is here," he said. "If he's there, that's fine."
3. Ron Artest continues to elevate his play even if it isn't always pretty
He walked toward the entrance tunnel appearing relaxed and loose. The obvious reason points to his 15 points on six-of-11 shooting and his ability to hold Eric Gordon to three-of-14 shooting by keeping him mostly out of the lane. But it's also a product of his contention that he's devoted more time to running and working out. That focus propelled him to drop to 250 pounds from 265 entering the season, but both Artest and Jackson worried he overdid it and lost some of the muscle in the process. But he's reverted back to his treadmill workouts and maintaining his avoidance of alcohol.
"I'm real athletic," Artest said. "But when my body is working it's really hard to score. My body is working."
Jackson pointed to Artest's increased conditioning and preparation as the reason for Artest's improved numnbers since the All-Star break compared to his regular-season averages in points (up to 10.35 from 8.4), shooting percentage (42.5% from 40.2%) and playing time (32.43 minutes from 29). Bryant likewise noticed Artest feeling more confident in simplifying his role, such as his three steals or deflecting the ball from Blake Griffin in the final minute of the game. Said Bryant: Ron's hands are incredible. They're amazing hands. He gets deflections and steals that you don't think are possible."
As with anything regarding Artest, there always features a catch. He surprisingly drove baseline past Kaman for a reverse dunk in the second quarter and also had a one-hander on a fast break, marking the third dunk he threw down in the last two games. In hilarious fashion, Artest bricked two consecutive fast-break attempts to open the second half, one that hit off the rim and one that went off the backboard. Mix in three turnovers and some extra dribbling, and it's obvious his offense is still a work in progress. But it's a start.
"I have to look at the tape, but I got higher than I usually get," Artest said. "I don't usually jump that high all the time. I wish I could've made the [expletive] dunk."
4. The Lakers lacked a defensive identity. Even with Artest's lockdown defense on Gordon and Bynum's seamless transition back into the lineup after serving a two-game suspension, the Lakers don't have the same defensive identity they held before their triple-overtime affair Tuesday against Phoenix. There's plenty of numbers to support this trend, such as the 104 points the Lakers allowed, Mo Williams' 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting and the 21 points they allowed in transition. The Lakers helped stave off the damage by owning the boards (41-34), but they became too exposed on their slow rotations in minimizing open looks.
5. The Lakers' bench remains inconsistent. Jackson lamented this department the most, considering this unit largely contributed to the Lakers failing to hold a 21-point lead. Bryant had thought Lamar Odom's return to the bench would help jump-start some consistency, but Barnes' tentativeness from his knee injury, Blake's passivity and Brown's inability to substitute poor shooting for anything productive remains an issue. Jackson will mostly rely on his starters and Odom during the playoffs. But finding opportunities to rest them for the remaining 10 games will prove valuable in ensuring the Lakers are in peak form once the postseason begins.
Said Jackson: "They have to start taking up the responsibility for that."
Quote of the Night: "What’s he gonna do, shoot him with one of his bow & arrows? Give me a break." -- Bryant on Kaman wanting to fight Fisher.
Stat of the Night: 50% - The field-goal percentage of both teams. This made for some exciting basketball, but one that left the Lakers largely unsatisfied. Earlier in the season, the Lakers thought they could simply outscore teams rather than to be bothered to play defense. The Lakers changed their mindset after the All-Star break, but there's plenty of issues to cover when they watch the film on Saturday.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his layup challenged by Clippers center DeAndre Jordan in the first half Friday night at Staples Center. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times