Maybe it’s being back home or it’s perhaps the Lakers simply want to get back on the winning track even it’s just pre-season. But, that’s exactly what the 2-time defending champs did in Las Vegas against the young Sacramento Kings. They captured their first victory notch in their third exhibition game 98-95 in front of a giddy crowd inside UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
Right from the start, you can see the different body language in the Lakers. They had a bit of a hop in their steps and looked more focused coming out of the locker room. But, none was more into it than Ron Artest, who scored the first 11 points of his 18 co-team-high point total in just the opening quarter alone. He was scorching from behind the arc in the first quarter hitting 4 of his 5 attempts from distance. He finished shooting 63.6% (7-11) from the field and kept Rookie of the Year Tryreke Evans, who shot 4 out of 14 to get 13 points, at bay.
“I feel settled, but I have still have to make sure my rhythm is going at times,” Artest said. “I wasn’t doing was I was exactly was I suppose to (in the triangle). I think was going back to things I learned last year. But there is some new stuff I learned today that I didn’t know last year.”
Ron really does look more comfortable on offense even if he still gets lost in some plays. It’s important for him to ease himself into what he currently knows about the Triangle so he’ll be more confident about taking his shots and where to get the ball to his teammates. Then, everything new he learns this season wouldn’t be as confusing as he thinks it is.
All eyes are still on Kobe Bryant and his knee. He played 6 minutes against Minnesota in London, 25 minutes in Barcelona and clocked in about 19 minutes against the Kings. So far he’s shooting at 14.3% (4-28) in pre-season at 7.3 points per game. He finished with 7 points on 2-of-10 shooting Wednesday night. He may be struggling on offense, but he’s been hustling and contributing in other areas particularly in the rebounding and assist departments. He tacked on 4 boards and 2 dimes before the night was over. Those numbers may not be mind-boggling, but they’re great signs that Bryant won’t be playing like both of his arms are tied behind his back much longer.
The best way of knowing if a surgically-repaired knee is healing and getting stronger is when a player can run progressively longer each day before some feeling of either numbness or discomfort starts creeping in. According to Phil Jackson, not only is Kobe running well in practice he’s also putting in a lot of strength and conditioning workouts on his knee meaning Bryant is on-par with his rehabilitation timetable. However, his knee isn’t strong enough for Kobe to play any more minutes than what he’s been getting. Phil is doing the right approach of limiting his play time until Bryant tells him that he feels like he can stay on the floor longer.
With Bryant still not at 100%, Phil is looking at Pau Gasol to step-up his game and become the focal point of the Laker offense until Kobe returns. Jackson calls Pau’s game as being “still on vacation,” but Gasol had his best all-around game against the Kings.
Pau matched Artest’s scoring output with 18 points but also added 2 blocks and a game-high 12 boards in 30 minutes. Gasol didn’t play basketball over the summer like he did a year ago, so his usual basketball awareness and conditioning isn’t there yet. From what we’ve been seeing in just 3 pre-season games, it doesn’t look like he’s too far behind until he gets all of his basketball tools together.
But the gameball, to me, goes to the Laker bench. They played like what they’re supposed to do which is infuse energy and change the texture of the game. Shannon Brown and rookie Devin Ebanks had a heck of a game. Brown wasn’t shy on offense at all and was active the whole time he was on the floor. Phil awarded him with 20 minutes and led the second unit with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. His highlight of the night is throwing down a dunk from almost at the free-throw line on a full-court pass from Lamar Odom.
Ebanks easily had his best game as a Laker with 10 points and 2 offensive rebounds. He looked like he’s been putting up a lot of work in practice in order to get more attention from Phil and the coaching staff to get him more minutes in the upcoming games.
Another guy we can’t overlook is Matt Barnes. Yeah, he put up 8 points and 4 rebounds, but his true contribution was on the defensive end in the third quarter. He was disrupting everything for Sacramento that goes his way with deflections, tough defense, a rejection and a take-away. Like Artest, he admitted having a tough time absorbing some of the finest details of the Triangle and is more busy trying to get everything down rather than be a problem for the team on offense.
Obviously, Barnes has to know the Triangle in order to operate in this offense. But, he can’t forget the real reason why the Lakers brought him in. Defense, tougness and rebounding are the biggest part of his game the Lakers are most interested in. Sure, his spot-up shooting will help but he’s a veteran role player on a second unit assigned to maintain the momentum for the starters or create more opportunities for the team to either get back in the game or build-up on their lead. What he can give outside of scoring will do that for this team.
The Lakers’ biggest lead was 17 while the Kings never led by more than 5 points. However, Sacramento won the points in the paint 34-32 and fast break points 12-9. Both teams tallied 47 total rebounds, but the purple and gold got 17 offensive boards against 14 for the Kings.
The defending champs made 37 of their 84 shot attempts (44%) and held Sacramento to only 39.2% shooting from the field. But, the Lakers were aweful from the free-throw line converting 60% (18-30) of their charity shots. Each team committed 18 turnovers.
Overall, it was sharing of the ball, second-half defense and the play of the bench that got the Lakers this win. More importantly, the players are starting to get into their rhythm and their basketball legs under them. They’ll practice on Friday before meeting up with the Nuggets on Saturday.
NEXT GAME: Sat., Oct. 16th Denver Nuggets vs. Lakers at 7:30 p.m. (Staples Center). TV: FoxSports West/NBA-TV Radio: 710/1330 AM ESPN