Thursday, April 5, 2012

Battle LA (4.4.12)

Blake Griffin flies over Pau Gasol.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Last night's "Battle in Los Angeles" did not include aliens flying down from space and pissing off the old timer, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, but it did include Blake Griffin flying through Pau Gasol, not once, but twice. Blake Griffin threw down a thunderous tip dunk over Pau to give the Clippers their first basket of the night. As Randy Foye shot from the near corner, the ball bounced up nice and high, just in front of the rim, and Blake took a running start from the far elbow and flew in the air, catching the ball with two hands and slamming the ball through the net as he rode Pau Gasol's back on the way down. However, this was only just the beginning. Blake's next dunk is what set off the Lakers and turned this intracity game into a masterpiece. The intensity meter jumped through the roof and the crowd couldn't decide who they wanted to win. Although the game was a Clippers home game, the crowd seemed to side with whoever was hot at the time. With two teams to cheer for, and numerous highlights, Staples Center was rocking. However, just as the grizzled veteran, SSgt. Michael Nantz, prevailed, destroying numerous aliens and reclaiming Los Angeles, so would the wiser, battle tested Lakers.

Kobe Bryant understood how big this game was and he came out guns blazing. The Clippers are an up and coming team tugging for the heart of Los Angeles, but Kobe showed them all why this is still the Black Mamba's town. With just a game and a half lead on the Clippers for the Pacific division title, Kobe came out red hot. After missing his first 3 shots in the opening three minutes, all within 13ft, Kobe made his next 7 in a row in the first quarter. Andrew Bynum also came out to play, and boy did he play well. Following his one game off due to the basketball gods punishing his erratic behavior with an ankle injury, Bynum came out and played the most impressive game of his young career. Andrew Bynum absolutely destroyed DeAndre Jordan. DeAndre is one of the best defenders in the league, but Bynum, even with a sore ankle, made DJ seem like a stationary traffic cone. Bynum brought out the full offensive arsenal and was able to get any shot he wanted at any time. Up and unders, left hooks, right hooks, reverse layups, fade aways, jumpers, dunks, Bynum did it all and there was nothing DJ could do to stop it.

Bynum's first bucket was a gimme, and it highlighted his lack of full mobility, making Bynum's night even more impressive. Sessions ran a pick and roll with Pau, moving from the near wing to the middle. Pau rolled nearside as Sessions turned the corner and got into the lane. Sessions dumped the ball to Drew, who caught the ball at the far block, took one dribble to gather himself, and finished with a reverse on the near block to avoid the double of DJ and Blake Griffin. Bynum normally would have just slammed this down, but his gimpy ankle took away his explosion, making him resort to fundamental basketball. Bynum's next bucket was a nice and one, as he leaked out after contesting a Chris Paul jumper and Sessions threw the outlet pass. Bynum finished the layup as Foye desperately tried to foul him but couldn't wrap him up.

At the 6:41 mark, with the Lakers up 14-8, it became Kobe time. With Sessions at the far wing, Kobe received the entry at the far mid baseline. With his back to the basket, Kobe spun baseline and stepped back for a 13ft jumper to beat the shot clock. Kobe's next bucket came as Sessions brought the ball up the near side. As Sessions circled around the perimeter to the top of the key, Kobe used a pick from Pau at the near wing and circled baseline to the far block. Sessions threw the entry and Kobe went up strong and finished the and one bucket 4ft from the basket. Kobe then caught DJ sleeping as he set up Bynum for an easy bucket. Kobe was in iso on the near mid wing. He caught the ball, faced up, and jabbed right. As DJ stared at Kobe making his jab, Bynum moved from the far block and slipped under DJ, sealing him on his back and Kobe fed Drew the ball right under the rim. Bynum took one bounce and finished with reverse layup. Kobe was not done by any means. The next possession Kobe was in iso at the top of the key. He caught the ball and faced up, slightly jabbed right twice to rock Butler on his heels and shot the 20ft straight ahead jumper. Swish. After a tipped ball on the next possession, Kobe caught the inbounds pass at the far mid corner wing. Bynum came from the far block to set a pick for Kobe, but no pick was necessary. Bynum slipped the pick as DJ doubled Kobe. Kobe fired the 3 pointer to beat the clock and it was money. At this point, Kobe and Bynum accounted for 19 of the 24 Lakers points.

Caron Butler seemed to respond with his own buckets every time Kobe scored. Being former teammates, and best friends, Caron had a flash back and had his best game since the All Star break, topping 20 for the first time since that span in just the first half. Bynum and Kobe kept coming though. Bynum caught an iso on the near block. He immediately pivoted with his left to turn baseline. With his right foot stepping out wide to the baseline, Bynum simultaneously swung the ball through from the left to the right and he jabbed. After rocking DJ right, Bynum quickly took one dribble to the left, got in the lane, and pulled up for an 11ft jumper. DJ looked helpless. Kobe responded on the next possession. Kobe isolated on the near block against Nick Young. He caught the ball with his back to the basket, dribbled once while backing down, and shimmied, shaking from his left, toward the baseline, and back to his right for the fadeaway. Of course the 13ft jumper was cash money. Kobe's next bucket came off of a loose ball. Corralling the ball just inside the free throw line, Kobe was headed the opposite way of his own bucket. Kobe decided to just get the ball, take one dribble back, and hop back past the free throw line. Kobe shot a fading jumper and the ball softly hit the front rim and bounced off the backboard and in.

Kobe and Bynum in that first quarter reminded me of Kobe and Shaq. They were just dominant. Every possession ran through them and they were an unstoppable tandem. Kobe finished the quarter 7-10 for 16 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds. Bynum finished 5-9 for 11 points and 5 rebounds. The Lakers led 34-29.

In the second quarter the Clippers sent double teams to Kobe on multiple occasions and they even switched in and out of a 2/3 zone in order to slow the Mamba down. Kobe only took one shot, making it, and he tallied up two more assists in his 5:28 of play. Bynum also slowed down, going 3-3 for six points in the same stretch. With excellent ball movement, the Lakers were able to overcome the doubles and get good looks, outscoring the Clippers 29-26 and heading into the half up 63-55.

To start the third, the cameras showed Vinny Del Negro getting up in DeAndre Jordan's grill and pounding his chest in an effort to pump up the big man. Vinny's motivational tactic would prove useless. The third once again belonged to Drew and Kobe. On the first defensive play of the quarter, Drew swatted a DJ dunk attempt. The Lakers also began to utilize the 1-2 pick and roll. With Sessions at the near wing, Kobe came from the far side and set a pick on CP3 at the near wing. Foye did not help on Sessions because he didn't want to leave Kobe, and Kobe took CP3 out of the play with his pick. Sessions turned the corner and drove straight down the lane for an easy layup. The very next play, the Lakers ran the same set. Once again Foye didn't show, and this time Sessions stopped at the top of the 3 and swished it as Chris Paul went under Kobe's pick. Following that, Kobe went into iso at the near mid wing. He caught the ball and held it with his back to the basket as he surveyed the floor for 3 seconds. With his back still to the basket, Kobe took one dribble to the right to attack the middle. Foye jumped on his top side, so Kobe spun back baseline and pumped. Foye bit on the pump and jumped right into Kobe as Kobe waited for the contact to shoot the jumper. Kobe swished the 18ft jumper and sank the free throw. Then the Lakers displayed a full set regarding the 1-2 pick and roll. With Sessions on the near wing, Kobe came from the far elbow, set the pick, and rolled to the far block. This time CP3 fought through the pick, so Sessions continued to dribble right to the top of the 3 point line. Sessions swung the ball to Pau at the far elbow, and Pau looked to send the ball to Kobe on the far block. The Clippers denied the entry, so Kobe curled up and took the handoff from Pau at the far elbow. As Pau's man doubled Kobe at the elbow, Pau slipped to the far block and Kobe immediately hit him. Pau caught the ball and shot a flat footed 3ft shot off the glass. Pau comically stood there, shooting without jumping, as DJ rotated from the weak side and jumped as high as he could to block the shot. Assist, Kobe. At this point, the score was 73-61 Lakers, with 8:53 in the third.

Blake Mozgovs/Perkinizes Pau Gasol.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Pau takes a forearm to the face.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Then came the boom. Caron Butler had the ball in the near corner. Blake came from the far side to set a pick and roll to the near side. Kobe was taken out on the pick and Caron took two dribbles toward the top of the key. Bynum flashed up to help on Caron and Pau stood at the weak side far block. Butler threw a perfect bounce pass to the rolling Griffin and Blake caught the ball just outside the lane and exploded. Blake extended his forearm and elbow into Pau's neck and threw down a vicious dunk as Pau fell to the ground. Blake then stood over Pau and gave him a stare down. The crowd roared, absolutely going nuts. Pau got up and yelled at the officials for letting Blake extend his arm and throw him down. Blake missed the and one free throw, but CP3 got the offensive board and kicked the ball to Randy Foye in the far corner. Foye then drove baseline and finished with a beautiful reverse layup right by Pau. These two consecutive plays could be featured on those "Wanna Get Away" ads for the airlines. Blake crashing down on Pau absolutely upped the intensity. The game felt like a bitter high school rivalry playing for the DVL championship in the last game of the season. Kobe immediately came down on the next play and checked Blake as he set a hard screen. Kobe popped him and got called for an offensive foul. However, the message was sent. Kobe stuck up for Pau and let Blake Griffin and the rest of the Clippers know that he would not be taking any shit.

The Lakers took a timeout just to regather their emotions. Kobe took control of the huddle and talked to Pau, telling him, "Calm down. Don't worry about it, come back and get these guys on the floor." Following that play, Andrew and Kobe scored every single point but one for the rest of the quarter, scoring 18 points in the final seven minutes. Bynum went 3-6 for 12 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 blocks and Kobe went 2-3 for 6 points, 1 assist, and 3 rebounds. The one point that didn't come from Drew or Kobe came from Pau. After Bynum got switched onto CP3, he blocked his shot at the far wing. Ramon pushed the ball up and hit Bynum on the far block as Bynum leaked out after the block. Bynum then dished to the trailing Pau who was sprinting down the middle of the floor. Pau caught the ball in the lane and as he went up for the dunk, Blake pushed Pau in the back. Pau missed the dunk and flew into the camera men, falling onto them. Bynum immediately got in Blake's face and called him out for the dirty play. Pau got up and angrily told Blake to make a play on the ball. The blood sure was boiling. Then Kobe rocked the joint. With Sessions pushing up the near side, Bynum set a pick on the outside for him at the 3 point line. Sessions continued driving outside towards the baseline and Bynum rolled to the near block. Ramon stopped at the near mid wing and kicked the ball out to the trailing Bryant at the nearside top of the 3 point line. Kobe swished the 3 and held his form. While the ball was in the air, Blake and Pau got tangled up under the rim and a double foul was called. The basket counted and the crowd began to thunderously chant "MVP, MVP!" So much for the game being a Clippers home game. Clipper Nation and their "Rise" campaign rose up to serenade Kobe with 3:32 left in the third and the Lakers up 84-73. Bynum closed out the quarter and sent the Lakers into the fourth up 92-81.

The Clippers immediately closed the gap to start the fourth. Nick Young got hot, hitting 3's, fade aways, and dunking the ball. After a leak out and huge dunk from Bynum, in which he stared down the Clippers bench, the Clippers took a timeout, allowing Kobe to check back in with 7:11 to play and up 98-93. The Clippers and Lakers began trading buckets with huge play after huge play. Pau even got some retribution on Blake midway through the fourth with a nice block and some fine words.

Kobe hits a tough jumper.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Kobe mirrors his previous shot to seal the deal.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Then Kobe made the two biggest shots of the game. Losing 103-104, Kobe caught the ball at the far wing with six seconds on the shot clock. With Vinny Del Negro right behind him yelling for the double to come, Kobe faced up and swung the ball through from left to right as he dribbled away from the late double by Eric Bledsoe. Attacking to the baseline, Kobe stopped and faded into the corner. The 20ft fade was absolutely beautiful and it put the Lakers up 105-104 with 3:01 to play. Kobe followed that shot with an even bigger one to put the Lakers up by four with 24 seconds to play. Kobe and Sessions looked to run the pick and roll again. Kobe came from the baseline to the nearside to set the pick at the near elbow. Sessions dribbled to the near wing and Foye switched with Butler, sticking to Kobe. Butler followed Sessions as Ramon reversed direction and and began to dribble toward the top of the 3 point line. Sessions then lobbed the entry to Kobe as Kobe sealed Foye on his backside. Catching the ball at the near wing and spinning to face the basket, Kobe rocked with a jab right and took one dribble left to the baseline. Kobe puled up in the near corner and drained the 21ft jumper with Foye's hand in his face. This swish almost exactly mirrored Kobe's previous shot and it sealed the deal. The Lakers finished the game and won 113-108. Kobe went 2-3 in the fourth for those final four points. Bynum went 2-2 for 7 points. Kobe finished with an efficient 31 points on 13-19 shooting with 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. Bynum came up with an even better line, going 13-20 for 36 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

Bryant celebrates the moment.
(Courtesy KCAL 9, NBA)
Overall, it was the battle tested team that prevailed. The Clippers had 4 turnovers in the final two minutes. They clanked numerous shots and Kobe closed the game. Just like the badass Michael Nantz in Battle: LA, the grizzled veteran brought home the victory. Bynum had his most impressive game of the year, bringing out all the stops and showing just how big a difference there is between the two LA centers. For the fourth consecutive game, Bryant hit the biggest shot at the end of the game. Winning the season series against the Clippers and ending their six game winning streak, the Lakers put a nice cushion on their Pacific division title hopes. The intensity of the game was almost unparalleled. It seemed like a fight could break out at any moment. Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin got into numerous spats. Each team took some cheap shots at the other. The atmosphere was playoff like. If these teams somehow meet in the Western Conference Finals (the only way they can meet in the playoffs), the city of Los Angeles and the entire basketball world will be in for a treat. Lakers/Clippers looks to be a huge rivalry for the next few seasons. With the city of LA up for grabs, the Lakers currently have the upper hand and they don't seem like they will lose it any time soon.

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