Five things to take from Lakers' 96-91 win over Dallas Mavericks
1. The Lakers made it harder than necessary in securing a 96-91 victory Wednesday over the Dallas Mavericks. They should feel happy by collecting a rare road win. But it didn't have to be this hard. Despite leading 93-86 with 1:06 remaining, the Lakers nearly squandered the game. They missed six consecutive free throws. They gave Jason Terry a wide-open three-pointer and failed to box out Dirk Nowitzki on a tip-in, plays that cut the lead to 93-91 with 29 seconds left. But the Lakers still prevailed, partly because Matt Barnes secured a rebound off Pau Gasol's second missed foul shot. Barnes then made both free throws to secure the win.
2. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum played aggressively. It's easy to psychoanalyze the reason behind Gasol's 24 points on 11-for-18 shooting with nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. This came days after Kobe Bryant publicly blasted the front office for not providing clarity on Gasol's future. It also marked his first visit to Dallas since the Lakers' sweep by the Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, a series in which Gasol proved a huge factor in the Lakers' fall. Whatever it was, Gasol looked agressive right from the first possession.
He attacked the Mavericks on hook shots in the lane, turnaround jumpers and putbacks. Gasol made two crucial baskets late in the game. He tipped in Bryant's miss, tying the score, 80-80, with 6:41 to play. Gasol also converted off Bryant's jump pass to him inside, extending the Lakers' lead to 91-86 with 1:29 remaining. Despite having trouble guarding him in last year's playoffs, Gasol held Dirk Nowitzki to 25 points on nine-for-22 shooting by forcing him to take off-balance shots that even he couldn't make. He didn't avoid the brutal contact Brendan Haywood delivered with his elbow with 20 seconds left.
Gasol wasn't perfect. He committed five turnovers and missed his two free throws in the fourth quarter. But his aggressiveness, enthusiasm for greeting the bench after a hot start and high-fiving Bryant throughout the game demonstrated his sharp focus.
As for Bynum, his 19 points on six-of-10 shooting, seven free throws, 14 rebounds and one block appears more impressive than it does on paper. That's because his production mostly hinged on Bynum making himself big in the post, restablishing position after kicking out of double teams and making putbacks. The Lakers need to involve him more, but it shows Bynum's growth that he can still produce on his own.
3. Derek Fisher had a strong shooting night. Don't look now, but Fisher has put a string of performances that shows he's still capable of providing some supplementary shooting. He scored 15 points on six-for-eight shooting. He successfully advocated for an official's replay in the third quarter on an out-of-bounds call that went the Lakers' way. Fisher held possession off an inbounds pass with 27 seconds left despite facing a double team.
It's unrealistic to think Fisher will sustain the 8.8 points on 62.5% shooting he has averaged in the last four games. But at least against the Mavericks, Fisher played with great efficiency. His shots came in rhythm and off great ball movement. That included a sequence that entailed Bryant facing a double team and feeding to Gasol at the left elbow, Gasol passing to Bynum inside and Bynum kicking the ball out at the top of the key. Fisher nailed the three-pointer to give the Lakers an 87-82 lead with 4:13 remaining. He then made a floater in the lane on the next possession, a shot Fisher usually never makes. For his strong play, Fisher played the last 5:28 of the fourth quarter. Brown usually has granted that time to Steve Blake both to rest Fisher's body and because of his shooting and defensive struggles. But against Dallas, Fisher rightfully earned the 27 minutes.
4. Kobe Bryant struggled for most of the game. He scored 15 points on four-for-15 shooting and committed seven turnovers. Bryant, who played 38 minutes against Dallas, has had to play those minutes on most nights and it appeared that fatigue caught up to him. He took awfully hard shots off the dribble and from long distance. Dallas forward Shawn Marion hardly gave him much room to operate. Only Bryant could make a 25-foot three-pointer and an and-one layup that went off the glass over his head. But it's good he didn't carry a gunning mentality. In fact, Bryant made two crucial passes late in the fourth quarter. That included his aforementioned jump pass to Gasol. On the next possession, Bryant then thew a lob to Bynum, who gave the Lakers a 93-86 lead with 1:07 left.
The Lakers are fortunate they had a strong supporting cast during Bryant's off night. But this game provides a stern reminder that Lakers Coach Mike Brown can't afford to give Bryant such heavy minutes. Sometimes it's necesary because of the Lakers inconsistent options. But the strategy reeks of desperation, stunts the team's development and sets Bryant up for fatigue in the postseason.
5. The role players did little things. Metta World Peace grabbed eight rebounds, set teammates up in the post and made defensive stops, including limiting Vince Carter to two points in the second half. Matt Barnes scored nine points, made a crucial late-game offensive rebound and two free throws that secured the win, constantly made off-ball cuts and grabbed nine rebounds. Andrew Goudelock helped space the floor by scoring six points on two open three-pointers. It's good for the Lakers to find such a niche since most of the offense rarely centers on them.
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Photo: Lakers forward Pau Gasol, left, tries to block a shot by Dallas center Brendan Haywood during the first half of Wednesday's game. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA / February 22, 2012
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, drives past Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki during the first half of Wednesday's game. Credit: Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press / February 22, 2012