NBA: When smart Lakers bring the hustle too, then watch out
By Kevin Ding
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES — Kenyon Martin was smiling, laughing, talking and doing everything big with the mouth the way that bullies love to do.
Martin did right in front of the Lakers’ bench to Pau Gasol early in the third quarter. Martin went so far as to pat Gasol condescendingly on the rear. Stone-faced, Gasol offered nothing more than a few nods in reply. Soon came his real answer — going down to the other end of the court, making a series of clever moves to gain advantageous position on the far more athletic Martin and earning the whistle against Martin.
Gasol marched to the free-throw line to score, further fueling the Lakers’ rally toward victory Sunday against the Denver Nuggets. The proper retort in this case was not a forearm to that cocky red tattoo of lips on Martin’s neck or Gasol lowering that shaggy head and trying to bull toward the rim. The right answer was not being a brute, not using force.
Gasol is an intelligent, skillful man — and he played to his strengths. And playing to your strengths is when you’re really being strong.
“They did talk too much,” Gasol said later. “Way too much.”
Gasol said his first option is always trying not to listen, yet he has learned it is imperative he does stand up and speak for himself.
“That’s how I talk — by my play,” Gasol said. “And other players can’t do that.”
The simplistic summation of this Lakers victory is that they looked like their old “soft” selves again and got pushed around in the first half before pushing back in the second half. There is something to that, particularly with Phil Jackson mentioning Denver’s demeaning trash talk — “comments made out there on the court about being soft” — and then acknowledging: “I thought we backed down considerably.”
However, to get a true sense of who the Lakers are and why they are so good — and remain much better than the Nuggets — requires the sort of complex thought that Martin isn’t necessarily capable of processing.
This isn’t just Ron Artest having the will, muscle and quickness to defend Carmelo Anthony to the point of annoyance. This is Artest knowing and identifying precisely the spot Anthony wants on that left block and anchoring those concrete high-top Peak sneakers to that spot to the point Anthony is whistled for the offensive foul, fouling out of the game.
You witnessed Artest’s emotional release — throwing his right arm forward time after time after time — after hearing referee Courtney Kirkland’s whistle and ruling in his favor with 2:13 to play. But oblivious to that attention-drawing spectacle on the floor was Kobe Bryant, who basically ignored Artest’s big play and big display to walk right up to Gasol once play stopped.
Bryant wanted to commemorate the previous play, which was Bryant drawing Denver’s defensive trap the way he was doing all second half and passing — this time with Gasol making the perfectly timed and spaced cut to find an attack zone in the lane. Bryant got the ball to Gasol, and he scored at the rim with an aggressive take for a 93-89 Lakers lead.
Bryant was so moved by that savvy execution that he ignored Artest’s celebratory calisthenics to point his taped-up right index finger at Gasol’s heart and walk up to share an eye-to-eye moment with his co-star.
No one tries harder than Bryant, yet he’ll tell you every time that great basketball is about execution more than effort. Gasol’s basketball IQ is undeniably part of what makes the Lakers great. Bryant’s obviously is, too — and Jackson acknowledged it was Bryant’s own idea to go operate in the low post to space the Lakers’ offense better and basically solve Denver’s defense en route to his season-high 12 assists.
It helps also that Bryant can play mind games with the refs. Kirkland’s ruling against Anthony was preceded by Anthony hitting Bryant in the face while he shot without a call — something Bryant vehemently explained to Kirkland so long and so well that Kirkland wound up the one nodding in agreement.
The Lakers are the smartest kids in the class, and they know it. That leaves them feeling most of the time that they can swagger instead of hustle.
On days like these, we keep finding out that if they do hustle, there’s no one who can keep up with what they think . . . and then do.