Following the team’s first road win of the season in Utah on Wednesday night, the Lakers were back in action Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This was just the third game of the season against an Eastern Conference opponent for the Lakers, who fell to the Chicago Bulls on opening day before defeating the New York Knicks four days later.
The Cavaliers spent last season at the bottom of the heap, but after winning the NBA Draft lottery have a brand new point guard in Kyrie Irving. The point guard position is one that had plagued the Lakers early in the season, and was sure to be even more difficult with Steve Blake out of the lineup on Friday.
But as injuries taketh away they also giveth back, as Josh McRoberts (toe) and Troy Murphy (flu) were back in action after missing some time. It was also the first time that Mike Brown would face his former team since being fired by the Cavaliers following the 2010 season.
The game started with a scare for the Lakers, as center Andrew Bynum hit the deck with an apparent ankle injury just minutes into the game. His injury history makes every potential problem much more dire for the Lakers, but he was able to walk it off and stay in the game. The Lakers benefited greatly from Bynum’s ability to stay in the game. Bynum carried the team offensively in the first, which was a direct result of the team looking to force the ball into the paint.
While the Lakers started strong offensively, the Cavaliers were able to hang in the game thanks to Irving. The rookie had scored over 20 points in four consecutive games entering Friday night’s matchup, and if the first quarter was going to have any indication on how the rest of the night would be, he was on pace to make it five.
One interesting aspect of the first was with Brown’s rotation. For the first time this season Devin Ebanks was the first small forward off the bench to replace starter Matt Barnes. Every game prior to tonight showcased Metta World Peace as the first reserve into the game for Los Angeles. However, recently World Peace has struggled mightily, prompting Brown to insert Ebanks into the game early.
Leading the way offensively, once again, was Kobe Bryant. After scoring 40-plus points in two straight games, Bryant put in 11 in the first quarter on Friday. At the end of the first the Lakers led Cleveland 32-28.
The Lakers started the second quarter with a rather unusual rotation. Darius Morris, Jason Kapono, Troy Murphy, Devin Ebanks and Pau Gasol were on the floor for the Lakers, which meant the team wasn’t exactly loaded offensively. With the Lakers leading by four entering the quarter, Brown was looking for his bench (and Gasol) to maintain the lead while scorers Bryant and Bynum take their rest.
One bright spot for Los Angeles in the first half was the play of Derek Fisher. With Blake sidelined and Morris in just his second career game, Fisher had a strong impact on the team on the offensive end. The veteran point guard set up multiple plays for Gasol and other members of the offense in the first half. Twice this season Fisher dished out seven assists in games, but in the first half on Friday he had nine. Even more impressive is the fact that he didn’t turn the ball over once.
But, much like we’ve seen over the past week, the first half belonged to Bryant. His tremendous shooting streak continued on Friday. And, for the first time this season, his range extended beyond the three-point line. Bryant’s offensive burst allowed Los Angeles to push their lead to double digits late in the quarter, and by halftime it looked as if the game might turn into a laugher. Bryant scored 24 points in the first 24 minutes, shooting 8-12 from the field.
Behind Bryant’s dynamic scoring and Fisher’s pristine passing, the Lakers lead ballooned to 18 at halftime. Los Angeles also got double-digit efforts out of Gasol and Bynum in the first half, as each Laker big man put in 12 points.
With the Lakers scheduled to play again Saturday night against the fast-paced Los Angeles Clippers, the team was looking to coast to an easy win and allow players like Bryant, Gasol and Bynum to rest. The team came out a bit flat to start the third, and Cleveland proved they weren’t about to let the Lakers coast to an easy victory.
One of the team’s strengths in the first quarter was their determination to give the ball to Bynum and Gasol in the paint. This is something they went away from in the third. However, Gasol stepped up in a big way opening the second half. Fisher continued his strong play in the third quarter as well, reaching double-digits in assists for the first time since 2009.
But the hopes of an easy win and a relaxing finish went out the window quickly as the Cavs continued to cut into the Lakers’ lead. Cleveland got back within single digits halfway through the third before the Lakers were able to finally regain some of the momentum they had in the first half.
One of the main reasons the Lakers once again were able to push their lead back over 15 was Kobe Bryant. After starting the quarter slow, Bryant picked it up down the stretch and pushed his point total to 35. Still, the key player for L.A. in the third was Pau Gasol. The 7-foot Spaniard put in six points in the third quarter alone, and had pulled down eight rebounds. After Cleveland was able to cut the lead to just eight, Los Angeles pushed it back to 12 at the end of the third, 82-70.
Much like at the beginning of the second quarter the Lakers started the fourth with a group of reserves and Pau Gasol. The Lakers lead was 12 starting the quarter, and it was up to the reserves to at least maintain the lead until Bryant and Bynum could come in to close the game.
However, unlike in the second quarter when the Lakers’ reserves were able to tread water with the starters on the bench, they faltered in the fourth. Cleveland was able to climb back within single digits, forcing Brown to call a timeout and reinsert his starters into the game.
Unfortunately for the Lakers the starters were unable to have an immediate impact on the game in the fourth. In fact, it wasn’t until there were seven minutes left in the fourth that the Lakers finally got on the board in the final period. Once again it was turnovers that plagued the Lakers. Lazy passing and careless decisions resulted in multiple fastbreak attempts for the Cavaliers in the fourth.
There was one puzzling decision from Cleveland head coach Byron Scott. With the Cavs trailing by just four in the final quarter, Scott kept young Kyrie Irving on the bench. After leading the team with 19 points through three quarters, Irving’s absence throughout the first half of the final quarter was very apparent.
But as time continued to tick down it seemed that the moment was just too big for the young Cavaliers. Multiple turnovers, including a very costly shot-clock violation, sealed the Cavs’ fate. Despite the fact that the Lakers offense, Bryant included, went shockingly cold in the fourth, the Lakers managed to play strong enough defensively to keep Cleveland from fully completing the comeback.
Even though he struggled in the fourth, and took some questionable shots, Bryant once again hit the 40-point mark for Los Angeles. This marked the 110th time in Bryant’s career where he scored 40 or more points in a single game.
Despite a less-than-enthralling finish, the Lakers still managed to defeat a scrappy Cleveland squad. But there were plenty of areas where the team played poorly. Shot selection, especially from Bryant, wasn’t great down the stretch. The team went away from what worked so well in the first half – attacking the basket with Bynum and Gasol.
Regardless of the way it played out, the Lakers managed to escape Cleveland’s comeback attempt in the final quarter. Some timely shots from Bryant, as well as a couple key buckets from Bynum, put the Cavs away for good. The Lakers barely managed to score double-digits in the fourth, but in the end it was enough.
With a much anticipated game against the Clippers up next, the Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-92, to extend their winning streak to five.
It was announced during the game that Steve Blake’s original diagnosis of day-to-day was a bit premature. Blake will miss 3-4 weeks with a rib injury.
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