Ray Allen scored 12 first quarter points–including two three pointers to move past Reggie Miller into sole possession of first place on the career list for three pointers made–as the Boston Celtics cruised to a 27-20 first quarter lead over the L.A. Lakers. The Celtics eventually pushed that margin to 15 points but then Kobe Bryant erupted for 20 second half points and the Lakers emerged with a 92-86 win, their first victory of the season against a legitimate championship contender. “Statement game” is a somewhat overused phrase but, whatever you call it, at some point before the playoffs began the Lakers needed to prove that they could summon up the necessary concentration and effort to beat a top level squad.
Pau Gasol contributed 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. He looked soft and tentative early in the game–bobbling the ball every time Kendrick Perkins touched him and settling for some fadeaway shots–but eventually Gasol provided some much needed paint presence. Miller (who was one member of TNT’s three man announcing crew) even called Gasol “Iron Man” (surely the first time that appellation has ever been applied to Gasol)–not in response to Gasol’s solid play but rather because a freak collision between Gasol and Lamar Odom left Gasol unmarked while opening a gash on Odom’s head that required several stitches to close. Odom shot just 4-12 from the field for 10 points but he snared a game-high 12 rebounds (though several of those boards were his own misses). Andrew Bynum tallied 16 points and nine rebounds.
Bryant worked hard to get his big men involved while he scored just three points on 1-3 field goal shooting but even though Gasol and Bynum each scored 12 points the Lakers trailed 53-45. TNT’s Charles Barkley has repeatedly said that Kobe Bryant has “slowed down a lot” and at halftime Barkley added that he knows from personal experience what Bryant is going through.
Allen’s three point milestone is a significant accomplishment; his 2562 career three pointers are not only two more than Miller’s old record but they are more than 800 ahead of Jason Kidd’s third place total. The 35 year old Allen is in excellent condition and is shooting a career-high .459 from long range this season, so he probably will ultimately obliterate Miller’s standard. However, amidst the quite deserved appreciation that is being shown for Allen (and for Miller) it would be nice if some recognition were given to the league that popularized the three point shot and to the player who held the career three point field goal record even longer than Miller did.
The Lakers took command in the second half as Bryant poured in 20 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. The Lakers’ bench did a solid job of maintaining a slender lead while Bryant rested during the first part of the fourth quarter and then Bryant returned to action with guns blazing, bagging three straight buckets in less than two minutes (and eight points in the final 4:49 overall, plus a great dish to Gasol for an easy layup after the Celtics triple-teamed Bryant) to hold off a late charge by the Celtics. It is obviously true that the Lakers enjoy a size advantage against many teams but it is befuddling that many people do not recognize that a major reason that the Lakers can so effectively exploit this advantage is that it is very difficult to double team the Lakers’ bigs because of how much Bryant threatens the defense. Gasol and Bynum receive much more single coverage than they would if they played without Bryant. It is also worth remembering that the Lakers’ big man-focused offense in the first half resulted in an eight point deficit; however, the advantage of getting the big men the ball early is two-fold: it keeps them mentally involved in the game at both ends of the court and, as long as the score is reasonably close, it preserves Bryant’s energy so that he can close out the game at the end (whether or not Bryant’s heroics fit the definition of “clutch” prescribed by various “stat gurus”).