Home, road, whatever -- it doesn’t seem to matter.
Back at Staples Center for the first time in three weeks, the Lakers kept rolling with a 122-93 thrashing of the Atlanta Hawks in front of a keyed-up crowd that obviously missed the home team.
Pau Gasol was welcomed with a standing ovation, Kobe Bryant’s pinkie seemed just fine, and the Lakers won for the eighth time in nine games while taking a staggering 41-point lead near the end of the second quarter.
Bryant had 23 points on eight-for-16 shooting, Gasol matched him with 23 points of his own, and all five Lakers starters were in double-figure scoring . . . midway through the third quarter.
In fact, the Lakers’ starters outscored those of the Hawks, 87-39.
“We just were real aggressive tonight, created turnovers, shot the ball well,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “Not much else to say about that game.”
It’s safe to say the Lakers made up for their three-point loss to the Hawks on their recent trip, one of only two losses in their foray away from Staples Center.
Four of the Lakers’ starters sat out the fourth quarter, the better to rest up for tonight’s game in Phoenix. As if the Lakers-Suns rivalry wasn’t already simmering, Shaquille O’Neal will play his first game for Phoenix.
If the Lakers (36-17) win tonight, they will clinch a head-to-head playoff tiebreaker with the Suns (37-16) and create a first-place tie in the Pacific Division. The Lakers currently lead the season series, 2-1, tonight marking the final regular-season game between the teams.
“The series is in the balance and we’d like to take that, there’s no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “Also, it would give us a little bit of a boost in the direction we want to go toward winning this division.”
The Lakers came off a stunningly efficient 7-2 record on the longest uninterrupted trip in team history and jumped into the All-Star break with their best record since 2002, but there were questions about their focus after Monday’s practice in which Jackson said the players looked as if they were on “spring break or something.”
They looked rested, to be sure, and also riveting against the Hawks.
They turned up their pressure defense in the first half, forced 19 turnovers and led by the eye-opening score of 69-28 in the final minute of the second quarter, amid a variety of dunks and drives by Bryant that would seemingly quell any questions about the torn ligament in his right pinkie.
The game also showed that allegiances run deep, even in rivalries that are no longer relevant. Mike Bibby, in his first game with Atlanta, was booed routinely whenever he touched the ball, Lakers fans obviously remembering his long ties to Sacramento that were finally severed with a trade last week. Bibby finished with five points in 16 minutes for the Hawks.
In the end, Lakers fans even got to cheer a Coby Karl dunk, chanting his name as he became only the second player in NBA history to play for a Development League team and an NBA team in the same day. (Karl had 15 points in 37 minutes for the D-Fenders in a Tuesday afternoon game at Staples Center. He had five points for the Lakers.)
On to Phoenix, where O’Neal awaits, with a new team.