Lakers answer the urgency call
Led by Vujacic, of all people, L.A. rediscovers its physical side in victory at Phoenix
PHOENIX -- It's appropriate the Lakers on Friday found the urgency they've been lacking during a 102-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns, thanks to a guy who acts with such urgency on every possession you'd swear he'd just been shot by the way he reacts to a call on the court that doesn't go his way.
Sasha Vujacic, making only his second appearance in the lineup after missing eight games because of a sprained right shoulder, missed a 21-footer with 8:47 to go in the second quarter and the Lakers down by eight points on the road.
It was a tenuous time. Los Angeles had lost its last four games on the road and was down almost double digits to a Suns team that shot 57.1 percent in the first quarter and was threatening to blow the game open to start the second against the Lakers' second unit.
But then Vujacic made the play to start the run that saved the day.
First a little back story. While the Lakers were on their three-game meltdown through Miami, Charlotte and Orlando, Vujacic wasn't even with the team, opting to stay in L.A. to work on his shot, sure, but also to work on absorbing contact on the court. To work on how to fall after getting fouled on a three-point shot. To work on how to fall after taking a charge.
How appropriate, again, that everything the Lakers were missing seemed to fall back into place for them as soon as Vujacic seized the chance he figured would be available for him to fill while watching them flounder.
After the missed shot, Vujacic started to back pedal on defense when he noticed Grant Hill with his head turned as he looked back to receive an outlet pass. Vujacic sprinted to the sideline and set up to take a charge in front of the unsuspecting Hill, causing the veteran to be called for a traveling violation trying to avoid an offensive foul.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before the game he was planning to use Vujacic more as long as the sixth-year guard would be comfortable fighting through picks. When a reporter asked Jackson if Vujacic gave him the green light he could do so, Jackson quipped it was more like a yellow.
There was nothing cautious about the way Vujacic sacrificed his body, absorbing the full force of Hill's 6-foot-8, 228-pound frame while hoping the hard pad he had affixed to his right shoulder would protect him from the fall.
"To be honest I was working on that a lot," Vujacic said. "Just to get mentally free and unblock that my shoulder is going to get hurt again."
The turnover gave Los Angeles the ball back, and after a timeout, Vujacic provided his second act, nailing a three-pointer that sparked a 24-9 run by L.A. through the rest of the quarter and gave the Lakers a 53-46 halftime lead.
"He played with that kind of energy that makes the defense have to pick up and help and react a little bit more," Jackson said. "It gives us a little bit of a presence out there."
The urgency seemed to spread through the whole team.
There was one sequence when Amundson collected two blocks on Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in consecutive attempts at the basket, like a football team stopping the run on third and inches and then again on fourth down.
Lamar Odom, who issued an "It's Time to Hit and Keep Hitting" directive after the Toronto game, started the punching-bag treatment on Amundson by leveling him in the first half when fighting through a screen. Gasol and Bynum continued it in the fourth quarter with Gasol rapping the pony-tailed Amundson across the face with his forearm to prevent a layup. Bynum threw Amundson to the floor a possession later. And Odom finished off the force with 12.2 seconds left by getting in a shove on him while they both sprinted toward the sidelines to save a loose ball.
"You keep going, keep running through people till they quit, till they stop," Odom said.
That wasn't all.
Shannon Brown, sensing the team needed a lift in the fourth quarter after its 15-point lead had disappeared, finished a fastbreak with a hammer dunk over the trailing Amundson, even if it meant thumping his sprained right thumb on the rim.
Even Jackson, who usually sits back atop his perch on the bench and lets his team play its way through poor play, seemed more urgent than usual, calling three timeouts in the first half to make adjustments to the Lakers' pick-and-roll defense and zone offense rather than letting a mismanaged possession slide.
If the Lakers were going to make their push to get in gear come playoff time, Friday was as good a time as any to start. The regular season ends a month from Sunday, leaving L.A. precious little time to match the mounting momentum of some of its competition.
Cleveland has gone 8-2 over its last 10 games and already clinched a postseason berth. Orlando is 9-1 over its last 10, Denver is 8-2 and Dallas has won 13 straight.
"At some point we had to step it up and I think it was a perfect opportunity for us tonight," Gasol said. "We understand the importance of the moment that we're going through right now and the point of the year that we're in and we don't have many games to let go and let it slip away."
Derek Fisher recalled Tuesday how Tex Winter used to always say that "everything can turn on a trifle." L.A. took the moment Vujacic created and turned it into momentum to last the rest of the game.
Now the trick is taking the momentum from this game and making it last the rest of the season.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.