Lakers continue high level of play in 97-84 victory over Orlando Magic
Each time a substitution took place, the standing ovation sounded louder and louder.
The Lakers' starters in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest checked in for Lamar Odom, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown, prompting cheers for the reserves ability to maintain a 12-point over Orlando with 6:04 remaining. Three minutes later, Brown checked back in for Bryant and before the two locked hugs and handshakes, the 18,997 at Staples Center stood up and clapped for Bryant's ability to play through his sprained left ankle. And when Odom stepped in for Bynum's place moments later, the crowd reserved the loudest roar for the his career-high rebounding effort.
Those standing ovations served as the perfect visual for satisfaction over what the Lakers displayed on the court Monday in their 97-84 victory over the Orlando Magic. Whether it was Bryant overcoming a poor first-half shooting performance (two of 10) with a much sharper second half (five of nine), Bynum grabbing a career high 18 rebounds or a strong supporting cast producing in various ways, the Lakers provided all signs of a team ready to maintaining the excellence required for a playoff caliber team.
The result entails the Lakers (48-20) improving their mark to 10-1 since the NBA All-Star break, closing the gap to one game behind the Dallas Mavericks (47-19) for second place in the Western Conference and reduce the deficit to 6 1/2 behind the San Antonio Spurs (54-13). Standings races don't just apply to the Lakers' own conference. They are also maintaining a one-game lead over the Miami Heat (46-21) and within striking distance of the Boston Celtics (47-18) and Chicago Bulls (47-18).
But that's not why the Lakers are happy with their play.
"Home court advantage to me is overrated," Bryant said. "We didn't have home court last year in the Finals. We split the first two games. We didn't have home court advantage. We gave it up. It was a five-game series and they had home court. When it's a five game series and you go up in Boston and you don't have home court advantage, you have to take ... back."
Ok, so Bryant's contention slightly overlooks the fact that the Lakers still had four home games total in the series, something that surely proved instrumental in their Game 6 and 7 Finals victories. But he has a point. He's more interested in the the team playing well period, considering a team's development takes care of the winning aspect anyway.
That aspect was something that concerned Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, worried a 3-1 mark on their four-game trip would give the team a false sense of security and lead to more inconsistency, a pattern that's emerged several times this season after appearing to return to championship form. Odom downplayed that level of thinking, arguing, "I don't think it'll soften you up." Bryant believed it was nothing more than Jackson trying to motivate the team, saying, "We don't listen to you guys anyway. I wasn't concerned about it. If the coaches were blowing smoke up our ... then I'd be concerned about it. But they never do that so I wasn't really concerned about it." But Jackson's stoic demeanor and constant one-word answers before the game surely provided the backdrop in how his team wants to approach the remaining 14 regular-season games.
"I'm worried about the fact everybody says we'll get the rest of March on our home floor and that in itself will be easier," Jackson said. "It's not going to be easier. It's going to be just as hard and we have to play just as hard. I hate to come home and have people pad us on the back and say great road trip."
But the Lakers displayed in their victory over Orlando how they're showing little signs of doing that.
Kobe Bryant adjusts to his left ankle injury
All the Lakers had their own way of revealing there was no question Bryant would play Monday against Orlando despite spraining his left ankle Saturday against Dallas, an injury he described afterwards was the size of a softball."
Jackson played coy, saying he didn't even go to the trainers room and ask Bryant his status and sharing that he only has a "sense" that Bryant will suit up. When I asked Odom if Bryant told the team his plan, Odom joked Bryant would address the media in the locker room fairly soon. And Lakers forward Matt Barnes revealed it pretty clearly that Bryant would suit up: "His foot would have to be cut off and put somewhere else for him not to play."
But Bryant downplayed any suggestion there would be any doubt he'd sit out, pointing to the his injury that he said was the "scariest" of all his ankle injuries, including the left ankle sprained that sidelined him for five games last season. After having a shot blocked by Shawn Marion late in the third quarter, Bryant's left ankle curled after a bad landing, prompting him to limp to the bench and then to the locker room before reentering the fourth quarter.
Constant treatment and taping since then helped Bryant's ankle reduce to the sizes of a lacrosse ball and then a baseball before Monday's tip against Orlando.
"It felt good enough to go," Bryant said.
That hardly looked to be the case in the first half, however. Bryant shot two of 10 from the field. Whenever he shot, Bryant minimized the elevation on his left ankle so it wouldn't land the floor as hard. And whenever Bryant moved on the court, it came at a deliberate speed in hopes that he'd avoid further injury.
"It affected my balance a little bit just from the trust factor, just to trust the ankle," said Bryant, who immediately headed to the locker room for treatment after leaving the game with 3:37 remaining. "At halftime, I gave myself a little pep talk and to stop acting like a wuss, come out and play and just shoot the shot."
Bryant surely looked more aggressive, finishing the second half on five of nine shooting. But it wasn't just his sharper mark that proved impressive. Even with a bum ankle, he drew an offensive foul on Magic guard Jameer Nelson and then hit a pull-up jumper a player later to give the Lakers a 50-48 lead with 8:41 left in the third quarter. Bryant then smacked his own head and pumped his fist after deflecting a pass that went out of bounds off Magic guard Jason Richardson.
"He's trying to find his way out there," Jackson said of Bryant. "He was aggressive and wanted to attack ... I thought he did a good job defensively at times. Offensively he'll have to find another day."
With the Lakers taking the day off Tuesday and having a three-day stretch before Friday's game against Minnesota, surely Bryant's ankle won't be as worrisome.
"I should be fine," he said.
Andrew Bynum continues to take pride in rebounding
A conversation with sports psychologist George Mumford prior to the Lakers' 92-86 victory Feb. 9 to the Boston Celtics helped plant the seeds to where Bynum willingly and consistently grabs rebounds. His career high 18 rebounds against Orlando marked the fifth consecutive game he's grabbed double-digit rebounds and eight time in the past 10 contests since the NBA All-Star beak that he's cracked double figures in that department.
"A couple of things clicked there," Bynum said of the conversation with Mumford. "But I really think it was my mentality, trying to go out and get every board. That's the only thing I'm doing differently. It's a lot more fun."
Apparently, a new pep talk has helped spur Bynum into grabbing missed shots as if he's playing Pacman or Hungry Hungry Hippo.
"His teammates are encouraging him to get all the rebounds," said Jackson, who also mentioned Gasol ranks fifth in the league in rebounding with 689 boards. "He's going to replace him."
That's a tall order considering Bynum has 380, partly a byproduct of missing the first 24 games while recovering from right knee surgery. But the point was made. Gasol laughed about the gesture, but then went to great length on how Bynum's willingness to do what he calls "the dirty work" has helped make his job easier.
"He understands now how much of a difference maker he can be out there without having a lot of looks or taking a lot of shots," Gasol said. "On the defensive end, he's chasing boards and it's incredible. It's a big change in his mindset."
Bynum has displayed that giddiness in other ways. After Gasol hit a jumper late in the fourth quarter, Bynum high fived him on the way back. Gasol then rubbed his head. He continuously stood up from the bench whenever a teammate made an impressive shot or defensive stand. And he remains hungry, saying he wants to shed his 290-pound frame to 275 so he's more mobile. All against the likes of Magic Center Dwight Howard.
"This is how he should play and he's decided that's how he's going to play," Bryant said of Bynum. "He's comfortable playing against Dwight. He knows Dwight's game. He's comfortable. Right now Howard's the best center in the game. But Andrew is prepared for him. I think it was a big statement that he can do this against Dwight Howard."
There's plenty of ways to go of course. Jackson described his effort on Howard to be only "adequate" because of his 22 points on eight of 14 shooting and 15 rebounds. There was also his four fouls that limited his aggressiveness at times. And there will also come a time whether the Lakers will have to decide between Bynum and Howard when he can become a free agent in 2012. But that's splitting hairs. Bynum's proved that he's just needed a chance to prove he can stay healthy.
"You have to be concerned that you're going to reinjure yourself if you've gotten injured the way he has," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "I think a lot of it is just forgetting abotu being injured and just playing has really helped him."
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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum battles Magic forwards Ryan Anderson, left, and Hedo Turkoglu for a rebound in the first half Monday night. Credit: Gus Ruelas / Associated Press
Photo: Orlando guard Jason Richardson holds his defensive spot as Lakers guard Kobe Bryant goes up for a jumper in the first half Monday night. Credit: Gus Ruelas / Associated Press
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum grabs a rebound in front of Magic center Dwight Howard in the first half Monday night at Staples Center. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters