Saturday may mark the end of 2011 but for many Lakers fans it really signifies the beginning of a new season. Even though the Lakers have already played four games this year, they played each of those games without a key member of their team.
Now, with his four game suspension behind him, Andrew Bynum returned to the lineup for the first time since being ejected in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. However, Bynum wasn’t the only change in the Los Angeles starting lineup on Saturday.
After a strong performance in Thursday night’s win over the New York Knicks, Matt Barnes earned himself a spot in the starting lineup over second year player Devin Ebanks. Barnes, Bynum and the rest of the Lakers found themselves up against a Denver Nuggets team that was leading the league in points in the paint. But with both their big men in action the Lakers were looking to limit those opportunities for Denver.
With early afternoon games such as this it’s no surprise when the teams come out a little sloppy. That was certainly the case for both teams when they took the court at Staples Center on Saturday. However, one major bright spot for Los Angeles was Andrew Bynum. After missing the first four games of the season he wasted no time getting himself back into the action against Denver.
Bynum was having an impact on both ends of the floor, and was playing with a lot of passion and energy. Denver center Timofey Mozgov had trouble containing Bynum on the block, as Drew was able to use his size and footwork to keep the Lakers in the game early.
While Bynum was productive offensively on the scoring end, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was not. Bryant is obviously a player that is known for his scoring, but in the first half he took a willing back seat to both Bynum and Pau Gasol. In fact, Bryant went scoreless in the first quarter for the first time this season.
The troubles for L.A. began on the defensive end of the floor. Denver showcased some very strong ball movement and used it to get themselves high percentage shots as a result. Denver lived up to their reputation of being strong in the paint thanks to the play of their two big men, Nene and Al Harrington. Both were able to push Gasol around on offense and defense, and create problems for Los Angeles.
By the time the second 12 minutes rolled around this game had turned into a full-blown slop fest. Both teams were struggling with turnovers and missed shots, and neither team was able to sustain any sort of extended run or momentum. After struggling mightily last season in the playoffs with their three-point shooting the Lakers had managed to shoot a higher percentage through four games in 2011-12. But that streak was stopped cold in the first half on Saturday as the team shot 0-12 from beyond the arc.
For the majority of the second quarter Bryant continued to play the role of facilitator. He finished the first half with five assists. But, more importantly, he didn’t have a single turnover. For a brief stretch in the quarter Bryant did take some of the offensive burden onto his own shoulders, scoring six consecutive points for L.A.
Another strong performance in the first half came from point guard Derek Fisher. While he struggled finding his shot, he made several nice passes that resulted in easy buckets for some of his teammates. He also snagged a key steal and took a charge, creating extra possessions for the Lakers.
The first half wasn’t the prettiest 24 minutes of basketball to watch by any means. But this Lakers team has quickly earned a reputation as one that will do the dirty work on the court. Still, at halftime the Nuggets led the Lakers 46-45.
Things didn’t get any prettier for either team in the second half. The Lakers were able to keep up their defensive intensity but things got trickier when Denver began knocking down some of the shots they missed in the first half. Meanwhile, the Lakers continued to struggle from long distance, connecting on just one of their 16 attempts.
Another area where the Lakers struggled in the third was the play of Kobe Bryant. While Kobe spent the first half passing and finding his teammates, he played a little out of control in the third. He took several ill-advised shots and forced some passes. His frustration became obvious after two bad fouls on Nuggets’ guard Arron Afflalo. The first involved Bryant fouling Afflalo on a three-point shot, giving him three free throws. Then, just several possessions later, Bryant fouled Afflalo on an easy lay-up that allowed him to get a three-point play the old fashioned way.
Los Angeles trailed the majority of the quarter while the Nuggets managed to control any momentum that L.A. tried to establish. Once again the bright spot for the Lakers was Andrew Bynum. Even though the Denver big men did have a strong impact on both ends of the floor, Bynum showed off some fancy footwork and a newfound aggressiveness that he hasn’t shown before. While the team struggled shooting the ball from nearly every spot on the court, Bynum helped keep them in the game and control the paint.
The problem for the Lakers in the fourth quarter was their outside shooting and defensive closeouts. The team gave the Nuggets too many open looks from beyond the arc and Denver finally began capitalizing on those opportunities. A major thorn in the Lakers’ side was Al Harrington. Denver was doing a strong job of attacking the basket and finding open looks outside, and Harrington was a major benefactor of this. The Lakers, who struggled closing out on shooters in the pre-season and against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, once again faced the same problem against Denver.
Considering how poorly the Lakers played on both ends of the court it really was surprising that the score was as close as it was. It seemed that whenever L.A. began to build any sort of momentum the Nuggets were there to quickly put an end to it.
Still, despite how poorly the Lakers played, especially around the perimeter, they had a chance to win the game at the end. Mike Brown checked Bynum back into the game earlier than he was expecting simply because L.A. couldn’t keep up with Denver without him. Bynum’s presence on the floor immediately made an impact, as he made multiple defensive stops and continued to be the biggest offensive force for the Lakers.
The Lakers were able to get the lead with just a minute to go, and unlike their game against the Bulls on Christmas they were able to hold onto the lead. The Nuggets had two chances to take the lead with just seconds to go but missed both three point attempts. The crowd at Staples held its breath as Denver had picked up the shooting slack in the second half. However, their last few attempts fell short, including a wide open lay-up that was missed by Danilo Gallinari, and the Lakers managed to hold on to the victory, defeating the Nuggets 92-89.
This was definitely a game that was controlled by the bigs on both teams. Bynum and Gasol led the way for the Lakers, with Nene and Harrington doing much of the heavy lifting for Denver. Ultimately the biggest difference between the teams was the disparity in outside shooting. Even though the Nuggets didn’t exactly shoot the lights out from downtown, they were able to shoot much better than L.A. Still, the Lakers trump card was Andrew Bynum. After the way he played, scoring 29 points and pulling down 13 rebounds, there is no question he was the key to victory for the Lakers on Saturday.