If the Lakers could ask for any blessing heading into the final stretch in order to nab a playoff place, the return of both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to the starting lineup would be just that. They finally received that blessing Friday night versus the 24-43 Washington Wizards at Staples Center.
After missing 19 games, Gasol was back in the facilitator role, with him being a key player the Lakers offense have missed on both ends of the court. With injuries littering the roster throughout the entire season it seems, Gasol, Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash haven’t played a game together since January 30. Luckily for L.A., the Wizards are both out of contention and arguably only had one threat on the floor in third year point guard John Wall.
Washington, who has also had to overcome a series of injuries, will be without their second leading scorer due to the recent injury to Bradley Beal. With the Wizards lacking their rookie due to a sore ankle, the way was paved for the Lakers to demonstrate how big of a threat they are at full strength.
The first bucket of the game came off of the hands of Metta World Peace, who drained a three off of a Gasol assist. The Lakers had their expectations met early with both assists and defensive production from their seven foot tall Spaniard. Howard was also able to slide into the assisting role when he fed the ball to Gasol with a sneaky pass into the paint to allow the easy layup.
Kobe hit nothing but net with his first shot attempt, helping push L.A. on a 7-0 run. Suddenly Wall and the rest of the Wizards snapped out of the daze they were in, and after snatching the ball away from Howard at around mid court, Washington was able to cut the lead to just one with a flashy dunk from Nenê.
Martell Webster hit an impressive shot for the Wizards after he threw up the ball off of the inbound pass in a catch and shoot fashion, and nailed it with 0.3 seconds left on the shot clock. Unfortunately for Washington, however, that was the only impressive feat they would reach in the whole first quarter. Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison made their way into the lineup with just under six minutes remaining, and made large positive impacts as soon as they hit the floor.
Blake did a tremendous behind the back pass over to Jamison under the basket, allowing Antawn to put in an easy layup and the Lakers to increase their lead to a huge 13. Every starter finished the quarter with at least two points on the board, while every player, including the three guys off of the bench, had scored one point.
A pair of three-pointers from both Jodie Meeks and Jamison with less than a minute remaining ended the quarter for L.A. on a high note, as they finished up the first 12 minutes ahead of Washington 35-19. Jamison had the most points with nine, as Los Angeles shot just under 70 percent in the quarter, and made all six of their free throw attempts.
In the exact same fashion from just around the same spot on the floor, World Peace hit the first basket of the quarter with a three-pointer off of an assist from Earl Clark. Mediocre shooting from both teams engulfed the next six minutes of play, with each team only putting away five points. Earl Clark hit a three of his own, and followed by an 18-foot jumper from Howard, L.A. had their largest lead of the game at 18.
Steve Nash showcased his ability to execute while driving into the basket, as he rolled in a bucket off of his fingers. Wall and Nenê had some tricks up both of their sleeves, however, as they hit three consecutive baskets, forcing the Lakers to call for a full timeout. Steve Blake was able to nail a three-pointer after some spectacular ball movement, as it went from Bryant to Howard in the post, who then fed it all the way out to the point guard.
Kobe Bryant exercised the large advantage L.A. had in regard to height, as he ventured to the basket and fed Howard for an ally oop to push their lead even more. Mike D’Antoni seemed to finally find his rhythm and the formula he wanted to use when exchanging people off and on the bench, and this was showcased by the fact that each player had such a large impact on the floor whenever they were subbed in.
Despite a few stellar plays from the Wizards, L.A. completely dominated on the floor, even with their nine turnovers. Los Angeles’ bench outscored the Wizards’ bench 29-12, and the Lakers headed into the locker room at half time up 57-41.
After a couple misses from both teams at the start of the second half, Dwight Howard put away the first basket of the quarter off of a pass from Kobe Bryant. The Wizards committed two fouls in under two minutes, but the Lakers were making mistakes of their own, turning the ball over and allowing Washington to slowly inch closer and closer.
Howard committed his third foul of the game versus John Wall, who had been shooting not to his standards throughout the entire game. This was proven when Wall missed both of his free throws, something that the leading scorer at Washington typically had execute with ease. Howard continued to demonstrate how important the height advantage was as the clock struck by, with ally oops and slam dunks raining in Staples Center on a constant basis. Gasol unfortunately couldn’t escape the inevitable rusty shooting form he showcased throughout the game, at one point missing a wide open basket to put him back to only 2-9 from the field.
Mike D’Antoni had to call for a timeout after L.A. gave up turnover number 13, as an unimpressive start of the second half allowed the Wizards to cut the Lakers’ healthy lead to just 10. Nenê cut the lead back down to single digits just after the timeout, as L.A.’s 14 turnovers amounted to 19 points for the Wizards. A 13-2 Washington run also put many fans within Staples Center uneasy, as the once lively and loud crowd became silent and frigid.
The crowd was able to come alive once again, however, with a basket from Howard followed by a three-pointer by Nash brought Los Angeles’ lead back to 11. Kobe finally had a basket of his own fall, as a fade away jumper from just above the key rattled in. Trevor Ariza nailed two consecutive baskets totaling 5 points, which cut the Lakers lead to only two just before the half. As the icing on the cake, Bryant gave away a turnover with only three seconds remaining. A once 18 point lead was completely blown in the third quarter, and the Wizards went into the fourth quarter with the momentum on their side, down 72-74.
Within 20 seconds, John Wall hit the first bucket of the last quarter to tie it all up at 74. Jodie Meeks put away a three-pointer, his second of three attempts, and after hitting another basket, rejuvenated the lead back up to five. Another killer three from Trevor Ariza tied it all back up, however, a few minutes later, and the Wizards looked more alert and ready to play as time passed. With the Lakers shooting under 50 percent, Washington had every opportunity to retake the lead, which they did with just under nine minutes left in the game.
Antawn Jamison had to take a seat on the bench, with x-rays pending post game due to an injured wrist, and you could see the pain on his face whenever the camera panned over to the sideline. After Jamison was the leading scorer, and arguably one of the most energetic team members on the floor a majority of the game, L.A. had to search elsewhere in order to finish off the game. Kobe Bryant was yet again the answer, after a huge slam dunk both awoke the crowd and the roster.
Forcing a few turnovers and regaining possession a few times, Meeks drained an important three from the baseline to regain the lead for his side. Trevor Ariza continued to be a menace from beyond the arc, and after hitting his seventh three of the game, Bryant once again had to execute a spectacular feat in order to get back into the game. After hitting back to back buckets, Kobe drew in a foul, booking himself a trip to the free throw line, where he scored one to push L.A. ahead three.
Nenê once again triumphed over Howard in the paint to score two points, and did the exact same thing the next time down the floor to regain a one point lead. Bryant became unable to hit the baskets he can usually execute with ease, including a fade away jumper with just under a minute remaining, putting the ball back within the Wizards hands. After a pair of free throws from Nenê, an offensive foul was called against Metta World Peace, and the Lakers were unable to recover.
L.A. allowed an 18-point lead to slip away due to turnovers and lack of defense from the perimeter. Kobe took 11 of the last 12 Laker shots, including the one that could have won the game. In the end the Lakers lost to the Wizards 103-100.