By DEITRA P. JOHNSON (ADW Sport Editor)
The Los Angeles Lakers came to town to prove one thing…that they just weren’t themselves in their last three visits to Philips Arena. And now in premier form — sporting a seven-game winning streak — the Hawks would get the real Lakers.
The Hawks had registered three straight wins at home against their West Coast counterparts, but their good fortune ran out on March 8 when the Lakers totally dominated play in running away with a 101-87 win.
The Lakers are currently atop their division in the Western Conference with a 46-19 record. The only other team in the West with a better record is San Antonio (51-12), and L.A. defeated them on March 6.
Atlanta is in third place in the Southeast Division with a 38-26 mark, and stands fifth overall in the Eastern Conference. With the loss to the Lakers, the Hawks have dropped three consecutive games.
L.A. Coach Phil Jackson decided to go with a bigger Ron Artest to defend Atlanta guard Joe Johnson. Artest, a small forward, stuck with a quicker Johnson in the first two quarters, allowing only 11 points. Johnson was then held scoreless in the second half.
“It’s not necessarily that we’re winning games but how we’re winning them,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said.
On the other hand, Hawks coach Larry Drew opted to stick with a smaller unit, which seemed to pay off in the first quarter. A running game from the onset, good ball movement and accurate perimeter shooting accounted for 60 percent shooting from the floor for Atlanta in the opening period.
In contrast, L.A. went to its big men – all 14 feet of them. Both standing at 7-feet, forward Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum seemed invincible down low. The two combined for 30 points and 27 rebounds and held the inside lane hostage. The Lakers outscored Atlanta in the paint 44-20 after it was all said and done, but most notably in the first quarter, 18-6, and 28-10 by halftime.
“It’s tough…both guys are very long,” said Coach Drew. “We tried to play them the best we could and not allow them to get down to their sweet spots. Our game plan was to come down on both guys because we give up such a size advantage.”
“In our first meeting in L.A. we tried to match up big against them, but we lost some of our offense, so our plan today was just to go with our normal lineup. …But both guys are so tough because they take up so much space,” Drew added.
Both Bynum and Gasol finished with double doubles – Bynum netting 16 points and 16 rebounds, while Gasol contributed 14 points and 11 boards.
Keeping pace early, Los Angeles hit 63.6 percent of its shots from the field in the first 12 minutes of play, and while the Hawks’ shooting went stagnant in the second quarter, the Lakers opened a 13-point lead and eventually settled for a 57-49 advantage at the half.
And then there was Kobe.
Bryant, averaging 25.1 points per game coming into the contest, was not the typical overwhelming sharpshooter he is known to be. In fact, Bryant missed several easy shots, including letting fly one air ball in the third quarter and blowing a couple of free throws, but still managed to get his job done nevertheless. He led all scorers with 26 points.
A 16-3 third quarter run by L.A. seemed to put things out of reach, as the Lakers took their biggest lead, 79-57. That is, until Atlanta staged a rally to cut the lead to eight in the final stanza. After trailing by 22 late in the third, the Hawks mounted a 23-9 run of their own to cut the lead to 90-82 with just over five minutes remaining to play.
However, the Lakers were able to stave-off the flurry and closed out with an 8-0 run for the win.
Atlanta’s Al Horford finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, and teammate Josh Smith had 16 points.