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Monday, November 20, 2006
Bryant, Odom playing together

By Eric Neel
Page 2

LOS ANGELES – The Lakers and Bulls played some seriously ugly ball Sunday night at the Staples Center.

It was an 82-72 Lakers win, with the two teams shooting a combined 36.8 percent from the floor. Yikes.

But if you love the game like I do, you keep a notebook, even on the ugly nights…

THE LITTLE THINGS.
Look out now, because Lamar Odom (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Kobe Bryant are communicating, flashing little looks each other's way, finding each other to slap five as they walk off the floor for a timeout, laughing in the postgame crush of microphones and cameras. In the second quarter, Odom has the ball near the top of the key against Andres Nocioni, and Kobe's posting up Chris Duhon down on the right block. Kobe flashes, looking for a gap, holding his left hand out. Odom looks, fakes the ball inside. Kobe flashes back. Odom stab-steps his way again, as if he's coming to him with the ball for sure this time, and then crosses over and cuts back, driving toward the hole for a high-arching floater eventually goaltended by Chicago rookie Tyrus Thomas. They didn't work it out. No assist, no clever back-cut, no real collaboration. And yet they were still working it, together, playing off each other, playing off the defenders' expectations about what they might do. And they knew it, knew what it meant, knew it would work some other time in some more spectacular way.

Kobe and Lamar
As a leader, Kobe must keep Lamar Odom involved often.

They still have a long way to go to figure out how best to play together, and they'll only really achieve that if this team runs more often and each guy is allowed to find the other in the context of a flow that doesn't care whose turn it is or whose team it is, but they're seeing each other right now and they're practicing the subtle terms of their connection. As Odom heads back up the floor after the goaltending, Kobe comes to him and grabs the back of his head, and meets him, forehead to forehead, like they're mindmelding, like they're in on something that belongs only to them. And this was on a play that didn't really come off. It's not going to mean anything if Jordan Farmar shrinks from the shot he's going to get to play some meaningful point down the line, or if Andrew Bynum fails to find a reliable low-post move, but if those things come together, and if the Lakers hang around for a fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs, the little things going on between Odom and Kobe will be big.

SPEAKING OF BYNUM.
When you hear he's working with legendary Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you figure he's working on the skyhook wrist-flick, but if this game is any indication, it's the shot-blocking Kareem (the one who swatted back three to four shots a game in the late 1970s and early 1980s) the kid is going to school with. While Bynum gets more comfortable with an offensive game that's still pretty deliberate (and vulnerable to uncertainty), the 19-year-old center looks ready to make a mark on defense. Duhon crosses the lane for a baby hook and Bynum's waiting. Luol Deng gets into a crease beneath the free-throw line and Bynum's waiting. Ben Wallace shoots a fadeaway and Bynum challenges it. He plays 10:18 of the first quarter before they bring in Kwame Brown, and he's active defensively throughout, on his way to a four-block, 13-rebound night.

PROVIDED, OF COURSE, HE FINDS A RELIABLE JUMP SHOT. A glimpse into the future based on little more than feeling. There's always one guy who stands out during pregame warm-ups. Has nothing to do with shots he's hitting, although it does. Isn't about the heights he's reaching, but of course it is. More than anything, it's a feeling you get looking at him move. It's a loose-limbed, easy-as-you-please, sort of something about a guy that says he's ready to go off, every night. Luol Deng is unmistakably that guy for the Bulls right now. He's the threat every club better have a contingency for, and you can see it in him before he ever strips the sweats. He looked good last year (14.3 ppg and 6.6 rebounds), but he's about to be bigger and better still. He's about to be conventional wisdom, shared truth, something we all agree on without debate, like, "Luol Deng, he's the best player on the the Bulls. Of course. What else you want to know?"

QUESTION FOR SCOTT SKILES: Are you watching Andres Nocioni? You watching the way he hustles on defense? You watching him work the boards? Most importantly, are you watching the way he finds spots, in the peripheral vision of a teammate with the ball, on the waiting side of a ball reversal, in the gap just left open by a sagging double-team? You watching that, you watching him square and hit from those spots? I know he's not much of a creator on his own. I know his handle is weak. But I also know your team struggles to score points every night. And that's how I know you have to play this cat more than 26 minutes a game he's been averaging -- you know, closer to the 44 he played in this game.

Andrew Bynum
If Andrew Bynum continues to develop his offensive skills, the Lakers may become a force in the West.

THE KIND OF PLAY THAT DOESN'T SHOW UP IN THE BOX SCORE. I'm not ready to say Ben Wallace isn't going to be a force in Chicago; it's early, he's been hurting a bit. But Smush Parker dunked on Ben Wallace this game. It was a big old Michael Graham-style slam, full of stank and bad intentions, and afterward, on the little bunny hop after he landed, Smush chested up to Ben a bit before he ran back down the floor. It was only one play. But it happened. There were witnesses. I just thought you should know …

GRINS AND GIGGLES. Kobe pushes the ball up the right side in transition, holding back just a bit. Kwame Brown comes hard up the middle and Kobe leaves it for him with a little lookaway flip. Brown catches it in stride and dunks all over Nocioni and draws a blocking foul in the process. Kobe can't stop smiling, rolling fistpumps down low like he's throwing dice against the curb. The next trip down, still juiced, he goes Marques Haynes on Bulls rookie Thabo Sefolosha (the first Swiss-born player in NBA history, a guy with a nice backstory, and a man who has to be considered a starter on any sort of 2007 NBA All-Name team) on the left-hand wing, dribbling the ball between his legs, butterfly floating so everyone in the building -- everyone but Sefolosha that is -- can prepare themselves for the long-range jump shot that's about to come raining down. And it comes, splash. And the room goes wild. And Kobe's lapping it up, smiling and shaking his head on the way back down the floor.

We talk a lot about what Kobe can do to involve his teammates on this club. We talk about how he needs to change, how he needs to lead, to sacrifice, and it's all true. But as Neil McCauley might say, "There is a flip side to that coin." Or better yet, as Yogi might say, "Ninety percent of the game is half the other fellas." Watching Kwame run and jump and stuff and stuff, it hits me: It's on them too. The teammates, the role guys, all of them, every night, at every chance, need to Kwame up, fill the lane and drop the hammer, and not just because the points count and the Lakers should be crafting a more balanced attack and all that, but because it's their responsibility to lift No. 24, to make him smile, to make him, bum knee and all, go Marques Haynes on somebody just because it's fun and it feels good.

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.