Here are five things to take away from the Lakers’ 103-88 Game 1 victory over the Denver Nuggets
1. Andrew Bynum provided a huge effort on defense. His emergence as a consistent low-post threat this season often came at the expense of focusing on defense. That was Bynum’s calling card last season when he remained behind Pau Gasol in the scoring pecking order. A thirst for scoring, however, suddenly quenched his defensive desire.
But with the Nuggets throwing an array of double teams at Bynum, he diverted his focus. Though he finished with only 10 points on five-of-10 shooting, Bynum played a key part in the Lakers’ disciplined defense. His 13 rebounds and a playoff career-high 10 blocks cast him in Lakers lore -- surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers playoff record of nine blocks in 1977 against Golden State -- cemented a triple double and tied an NBA playoff record for most blocks. Bynum shut off looks in the lane, helping Ramon Sessions switching on pick-and-rolls and quickly rushing back on defense. In turn, Pau Gasol (13 points, eight boards) and Jordan Hill (10 points, 10 rebounds) became trusty options when Bynum wasn’t open.
Bynum was efficient offensively. But he didn’t receive many looks because of the double teams, which forced him to pass and move off the ball to ensure proper floor spacing. Considering Bynum’s recently questionable effort on defense, his performance Sunday was a sign of how he can be effective even if teams are limiting his offensive production.
2. Kobe Bryant alternated between forcing the issue and attacking the basket. Bryant sarcastically blamed his age (33) for shooting 43%, his lowest mark since the 1997-98 season in his second year in the NBA. But I attribute Bryant’s 31 points on 11-of-24 shooting to his initially forcing the issue way too much on contested midrange jumpers. Denver, led by Arron Afflalo, loaded up on Bryant in the post and goaded him into taking forced shots. Bryant took the bait and went two of 10 in the first half.
Fortunately for the Lakers, Bryant attacked the basket more. His nine-of-14 second-half clip featured seven field goals close to the basket, while nine points came off free throws. It’s a good sign that Bryant remained aggressive and attacked the basket. But it shouldn’t have required a whole first half to figure it out. Fortunately, the Lakers had a solid supporting cast.
3. The Lakers were solid at point guard. There was skepticism about the Lakers backcourt entering the playoffs. Ramon Sessions hadn’t played a single playoff game, showed less aggressiveness on offense and remained a liability on defense. Steve Blake was tentative in running the offense and finding his shot. And plenty, including me, wondered how the Lakers would handle speedy point guard Ty Lawson.
Well, everything was flipped on its head. Sessions attacked the basket and posted 14 points on six-of-11 shooting and had five assists. Blake, in a second-quarter splurge, made three consecutive three-pointers on shots he’d usually pass up. And the Lakers held Lawson to seven points on three-of-11 shooting, denying him open jumpers and flooding the lane. That prevented Denver from cashing in on the open floor and running a balanced offense.
4. The Lakers hardly miss Metta World Peace with Devin Ebanks’ contributions. Ebanks appeared comfortable starting in World Peace’s absence, posting 12 points on five-of-six shooting and five rebounds. Lakers forward Matt Barnes showed his sprained right ankle wouldn’t deter him from playing aggressively and making effective passes to set up teammates. And though Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari posted 19 points on seven-of-14 shooting, that became a mere afterthought because of the Lakers’ strong defense and Ebanks’ contributions.
Ebanks hardly appeared nervous in his first playoff appearance, attacking the basket with aggression. Then when he established a rhythm, he looked comfortable in finding his shot. Throughout his two-year career with the Lakers, he has earned respect for his work ethic and for not treating playing time as an audition tape. Be letting his development occur naturally, Ebanks ensured breakout games like this. Of course, that just leads to questions on why Coach Mike Brown kept him mostly on the bench all season, but that’s a topic for another day.
5. It’s good Brown cleared his bench. He supported Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau’s keeping Derrick Rose playing late in the game despite a double-digit lead over the Sixers with 1 minute 20 seconds remaining, which led to Rose’s season-ending ACL tear in his left knee. Although Brown said his philosophy is predicated on “feel,” it’s a good thing he cleared his bench with 1:58 remaining. There’s no need to risk any of his starters.