(Photo by AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
LOS ANGELES -- Take the Spurs from three stars down to one, force them into a battle of the benches and the Lakers are in an even fight against the team with the best record in the Western Conference.
Even with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker sitting out with injuries, San Antonio still held a two-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter. That's when the Lakers' reserves of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, Trevor Ariza and Vladimir Radmanovic took over. They outscored the Spurs 13-7 in the first 3 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter, holding the fort long enough to push the Lakers to a 102-97 victory at Staples Center Thursday night.
"You just have to find a way to win a game like this," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It can get ugly. It got scrappy. We just had to find a combination of guys who could go in and play well. Our bench unit bailed our starters out in the fourth quarter."
One of the starters had already been thrown out. Andrew Bynum tried to go after San Antonio's Fabricio Oberto with 4:32 left in the third quarter. He was hit with one technical. That prompted him to curse at the refs, earning another tech and a trip to the locker room.
Still, losing Bynum doesn't compare to losing Duncan. And Turiaf was more than capable of taking over for the young center.
Different names on different nights, but one of the few consistent themes of this Laker season has been strong bench performances.
The Laker reserves had a 73-point game against the Bulls on Nov. 18 and a 67-point night against Phoenix on Nov. 2. The backups came into the game averaging 39.4 points, second only to the Spurs, at 42.7.
San Antonio's bench is bolstered by Manu Ginobili, who plays starter's minutes and averages a team-high 20.8 points per game. Ginobili could start on any night, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich prefers to bring him off the bench to give more firepower to the second unit, and to allow Michael Finley to play with Duncan -- whose low-post presence creates open shots on the perimeter.
Ginobili got his second start of the season Thursday, but against a Laker defense that packed the middle, and with an outside shot that kept falling short, he missed six of seven 3-pointers, had almost as many fouls and turnovers (a total of 12) as he did points (14).
The Lakers' reserves produced far more efficient numbers. Take away Ariza's 1-for-6 and the rest of the bench shot 13 for 20. The five bench players who saw action scored 37 points -- so technically it was a sub-par game for the subs.
"It's important every good team has a solid bench," said Farmar, who had seven points, three assists and three rebounds in 17 minutes. "The starters are going to do what they do every night. But the other people who contribute, they differentiate between wins and losses. We play well, we share the ball and play defense, we usually win games."
Jackson often sends in the subs as a single unit to start the second and fourth quarters, keeping an antsy Kobe Bryant on the bench longer than he'd like.
In the fourth quarter Thursday, "He asked me not to let him cool down tonight," Jackson said. "But I liked the way they were playing tonight, so I let him sit another couple of minutes."
Bryant checked back in with 6:30 remaining, promptly drove for a layup, then guided the Lakers home with five more points and an assist. He finished with 30 points; it's a somewhat rare plateau for him this season, a number he had not reached in his previous six games.
Bryant is in a coolly efficient mode right now, conserving his energy and his statements, hitting his 27 point average with ease, then using a minimal number of words to describe the game afterward. He isn't curt, but he isn't expansive, either. Just as his game doesn't feature the spectacular drives through traffic or the acrobatic dunks lately. On one breakaway that would have invited a 360 back in the day he calmly deposited the ball through the hoop.
Bryant doesn't have to produce as much these days. More often than not, the bench players can more than make up for it.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
John (Portland, ME): Are you suprised at how well Big Baby Glen Davis is playing? Celtics GM Danny Ainge strikes gold in the draft again!
Chad Ford: Not surprised, he was on our list of most underrated players on draft night. The concern was his conditioning coming into the draft ... not his basketball skills. So far he's in good shape and his talent is showing through. I don't think there's any question that Danny Ainge has a knack for evaluating talent. Really his drafting of Marcus Banks was his only serious misstep in the draft.
Jason., Boston: What about trading the rights to Brandon Roy for Sebastian Telfair? I would call that a gigantic mistake, wouldn't you?See the full Ford chat
No 40 this time for Kobe Bryant. He had 30 points Thursday, but has three career 40-point games against the Spurs, tied for the most by a single player since Gregg Popovich became the Spurs coach in the '96-97 season.
Most 40-Point Games vs Spurs, Since '96-97
Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard: The feel-good Lakers roll ahead, topping a Spurs team without two of its Big 3. With plenty of helpers, Kobe's 30 came in the flow. Smooth.
Shaquille O'Neal, Heat center: Of course, he's saving himself for the playoffs. That worked before, right? He had seven points and six rebounds in a home loss to the Wiz.
Quote of the Night
"I'm beyond disappointed in our team."
-- Heat coach Pat Riley, after Miami dropped to 2-7 at home this season. • See how all 38 players fared
-- Andrew Ayres
Thursday's game was the 10th time this season Shaquille O'Neal has attempted fewer than 10 shots from the field, matching the most he's ever had in a full season. In the past, Shaq's teams had been able to overcome his ineffective games, but not this year.
Shaq Most Games With Fewer Than 10 FGA
Single-Season, NBA Career
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant has found a winning touch early on with the Lakers.