The Lakers defeated the Hornets 93-91 this past Monday. A win like this should be no cause for celebration, even with Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench with a boot on his foot and shin. However, there actually was something noteworthy about the win, the Lakers closed out the game with stifling defense. Losing 73-81 with 6:30 left in the game, the Lakers went into lockdown mode and finished the game strong. During a pregame interview, Pau Gasol stated, "We need to stick to our principles in the defensive half court." The Lakers were able to do this in the final six minutes and it led to their win.
After a slow start by both teams, things started to pick up a little bit. Devin Ebanks made some great hustle plays, at one point diving through Marco Belinelli's legs to get a loose ball at half court and call timeout. Pleased, Mike Brown promptly hustled to mid court and gave Ebanks a high five and some nice recognition for his effort. Ebanks ended the quarter going 2-3 for 6 points, with all of his points coming on attacks to the rim. In Kobe's absence, Ebanks has stepped up nicely and Mike Brown seems impressed with the young guy. Speaking of Kobe, while dressed in a suave suit with one fresh Nike kick on one foot and a boot on the other, Kobe acted as an assistant coach throughout the night. He could be seen on the bench giving tips to the guys, talking in the huddle during timeouts, and even standing next to Mike Brown and watching the action during key plays. I'll touch upon this a little more later. The Lakers came out and established Pau in the post as the main feature of the offense. Pau went 3-4 for 6 points, 1 assist, and 3 rebounds. Pau hit a jumper, a putback, and an up and under leaner. He also hit Ebanks on a nice curl for a layup. Pau's presence was felt early and often. The opposite could be said of Bynum. Bynum went 0-3 for 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. However, Bynum was doubled early and often, and he did a pretty good job of kicking out to the open wings. The Lakers finished the quarter up 21-19.
In the second quarter, Pau seemed to forget about his pregame sentiments. The second 12 minutes became the Carl Landry show. Although undersized, Landry torched Pau and Bynum on multiple occasions. Landry went 4-5 for 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist in the quarter. Landry consistently hit mid range jumpers as Pau and Bynum sagged off of him. When he did put it on the floor, Landry got to the rim and drew fouls. Consistently hitting the 10ft jumper from the mid block, Pau was egregious in his numerous moments of giving Landry space for the open jumper. The second quarter was not Pau's finest play. Besides giving up points to Landry, Pau shot 3-8 for 9 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 turnover. Drew was also pretty nonexistent, other than one frustration foul. Drew went 2-4 for 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 turnover. Andrew's foul came with a minute left in the half. After Sessions drove strong to the rim and missed his layup, Bynum gathered the offensive rebound on the near block. Bynum gathered himself and slowly went up for a putback, but the ball was stripped as he went up. Chris Kaman got away with pushing Bynum in the side as Bynum went up, but this happened as Bynum was bobbling the ball. Drew regained possession and took a dribble from under the basket toward the far block. Drew then threw up a desperation turnaround shot that came nowhere close to going in. Feeling that he had been fouled, Drew ran back on D and wrapped up Greivis Vasquez just behind the near wing 3 point line. Bynum obviously committed a frustration foul and he let his displeasure be known with the refs. Although the foul was pretty dumb, it was, in a sense, progress for Bynum. Rather than yelling at the refs and getting a technical, Bynum took a meaningless foul and was able to check his emotions. Now if Drew does this with 4 fouls late in the fourth quarter, then there will be hell to pay, but at this stage in the game, it wasn't that big of a deal. With Pau hitting a buzzer beating jumper from the top of the key, the Lakers went into half up 44-43.
The third quarter was pretty ugly for the Lakers. The Lakers were outscored 29-21 in the quarter and they had some disappointing defensive lapses. In the final four minutes of the quarter, Carl Landry checked in and continued his nice play, going 2-2 for 4 points, with 1 assist and 1 rebound. The Hornets hit some huge threes off of kick outs and high screens, shooting 3-4 from downtown in the quarter. The bigs didn't show on high screens as the guards went under, leaving Vasquez and Belinelli twice for open 3's. Belinelli also hit a huge 3 to beat the shot clock after a drive and kick. Pau had another rough quarter, going 1-4 for 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. Bynum got himself started a bit, going 3-7 for 7 points and 3 rebounds. The real star of the quarter was Ramon Sessions. Ramon went 2-3 for 8 points, 3 assists, and 1 rebound. Sessions attacked the rim strong and had one highlight worthy dunk. With just over 5 minutes left in the quarter, Sessions dribbled up the court to just behind the top of the 3. Sessions decided not to use Pau's pick on the right and instead he used a nice hesitation dribble to freeze his man. Sessions then exploded with acceleration and went straight to the rack. Sessions went up with two hands and dunked the ball in Kaman's face as Kaman was late on his rotation and stuck under the rim. Sessions also closed out the quarter with a savvy play. With 33 seconds left in the quarter, Sessions let the ball roll all the way to his basket at the top of the 3. New Orleans should have pressured him and made him pick it up, but Sessions got away with it and was able to produce a 2 for 1 opportunity to close the quarter. Sessions quickly picked up the ball at the top of the 3 and he crossed his man from right to left and then back to his right. Sessions got into the lane and finished with a running floater off of the glass. The 2 for 1 opportunity almost worked perfectly, as Barnes was able to drive and kick to an open Blake at the end of the quarter, but Steve missed the open wing jumper. After allowing Greivis Vasquez to go 3-4 for 9 points and 5 assists in the quarter, the Lakers entered the fourth down 65-72.
After allowing the Hornets to stretch the lead to 79-71 with 8:45 left to play, the Lakers finally returned to their defensive principles from earlier in the season. The Hornets went 5-18 from that point on and the Lakers played some great defense. The Lakers came up with 5 huge blocks in this span, with Pau getting 2, Drew 1, Barnes 1, and MWP 1. Pau came up with the biggest block of the night with just under two minutes left in the game and the score tied 86-86. Vasquez used a pick from Kaman on the near top side to drive to the near mid wing. Vasquez hit the rolling Kaman in the middle of the lane. Metta World Peace rotated from the far side to step right in front of Kaman in the lane. Metta's presence allowed just enough time for Pau to slide over from the near block and swat Kaman's good look at the basket. Bynum recovered the ball, and Sessions pushed up the far wing. Sessions swung the ball to Metta at the top of the 3. Metta hit Pau at the near elbow and waited. Marco Belinelli left Metta to double Pau, so Pau dribbled out from the elbow to the near wing. With 4 seconds on the shot clock, Pau swung the ball back to Metta at the top of the 3. Marco tripped as Pau passed it and Metta knocked down the wide open 3. The Lakers came up with two more stops and sealed the deal with the same exact play they used against New Jersey for Kobe to hit the game winning 3. During the timeout before the play, Kobe was seen talking to Pau. He gave him a lot of pointers, and he seemed to indicate that the ball would be going over Pau's head during the talk, implying that Pau would be setting a down screen. With Metta as the inbounder, Bynum set up on the near block, Blake on the far block, Pau at the near top key, and Sessions at the far elbow. Blake started the set by cutting across from the far block to the near corner. Sessions came to set a cross screen as he cut to the near block and picked Bynum's man. Bynum rolled around from the near block to the far block, and he chipped Sessions man in the process. Pau then came down from the top and laid a down screen on Sessions man (Vasquez) at the near mid elbow as Sessions popped up to the near side top 3. Metta threw a perfect pass and Sessions knocked down the clutch 3.
Sessions' 3 put the Lakers up 92-86 and should have sealed the deal. However, New Orleans came down and hit a 3 of their own as Vasquez used a flare screen on the near wing to cut to the mid corner. Bynum was late on the closeout and Vasquez hit the 3, cutting the lead to just 3 points. Pau was immediately fouled and he missed the second free throw. During the free throws, the cameras caught Kobe on the sideline standing next to Mike Brown as if he was the assistant coach. It was pretty entertaining to see Kobe so engaged and it served as a reminder of how injured stars should interact with their teammates. New Orleans then came out looking for a 3, but the Lakers played some great defense. Vasquez caught the ball at the far wing and looked to swing the ball to Belinelli, who was curling from the far block up to the near wing. However, Metta rode Belinelli's outside hip, effectively denying the pass and making it impossible for Kaman to get a good pick on him at the top of the key. Vasquez had no choice but to hit Kaman at the top of the key. Kaman drove left and finished with the lefty runner as Bynum gave up the concession 2. This put the score at 93-91 with 1.2 seconds left.
All the Lakers had to do following the concession basket was inbound the ball; however, this would prove to be a rather mind-blowing event. Mike Brown called timeout to advance the ball to half court. They set up Metta as the inbounder on the near side, with Pau at the near elbow, Blake at the far corner, Sessions at the far mid wing, and Barnes in the backcourt far corner. The choice to have Barnes so far from the action was obviously meant to open the court up for one of the other three Lakers to catch the ball in space; however, Metta seemed intent on throwing the ball to Barnes. Barnes' man, Smith, seemed confused by the setup and he roamed from half court to the far wing and finally all the way to the far corner. During this time, Metta anxiously asked for the ball on numerous occasions. For some reason, the ref waited a while to give Metta the ball. Metta had already tipped his hand, yet once he got the ball, he motioned for Barnes to cut to the near corner. Metta then proceeded to throw the ball in toward the Hornets rim in his own backcourt before Barnes began moving. Jason Smith nearly came up with the steal. Luckily Barnes was able to beat him to the ball and gather it at the near block. If Smith did steal that pass, he would have had an 8ft jumper to tie the game with the smaller Barnes on him. Fortunately, Barnes got there just in time and was able to run out the clock. This play left Stu Lantz stupefied, as Stu proclaimed, "That was the worst play I have ever seen in basketball." Stu repeated this line multiple times and was clearly bothered by the horrible decision. The Lakers almost blew the game, but a little bit of luck allowed them to pull out the win.
Despite the crazy ending, the Lakers were able to win the game because of their defensive prowess and offensive clutchness. Five different Lakers scored in the final 3 minutes of play with the game on the line. Bynum had a reverse layup, Blake had a running bank shot in the lane, Metta had the open 3, Sessions hit the 3 off the inbound, and Pau made a free throw. Usually crunch time is Kobe time, however, multiple guys stepped up and made huge plays. These contributions are important and will serve the team well in the future, especially come playoff time. Hitting big shots always boosts confidence and it's nice to know that these guys can step up and make big plays. Although barely beating New Orleans is nothing to get too excited about, it is important to recognize the defensive effort and strong close at the end. The Lakers need to play that fourth quarter brand of defense all game from here on out. They can't wait until the end of the game to finally turn on the defensive switch. Doing so against good teams will cost them wins. For now though, let's just celebrate the win. Pau, Drew, and Ramon came up big and led the way. Pau went 10-21 for 25 points, with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 2 huge blocks; a great all around game. Drew went 7-17 for 18 points, with 11 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block. Ramon finished an efficient 5-9 for 17 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, and 1 steal. These are great contributions to some buy time while Kobe is out due to injury.