Everything is back to normal in the Western Conference: Kobe Bryant is hitting late daggers for the Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs are putting upstarts back in their place, the Oklahoma City Thunder are cruising, and the defending champion Dallas Mavericks are appearing title-worthy again.
Well, not everything is hunky-dory.
Andrew Bynum getting benched by coach Mike Brown for the final 9:10 means there is still a whiff of controversy in the stronger of the NBA’s two conferences.
“I don’t know what was bench-worthy about the shot, to be honest with you,” said Bynum, who attempted a 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock in the third quarter and found himself with a Jack Nicholson seat to watch Kobe Bryant – he of the controversial fourth-quarter benching two days earlier – lead the Lakers to a 104-101 victory over Golden State on Tuesday night. “I made one [in Sunday's game]. I wanted to make another one. That’s it. He took offense to it, so he put me on the bench.”
Bryant scored 30 points and made a pair of clutch jumpers in the final 64 seconds for the Lakers, who had their hands full with a home team that had Charles Jenkins, Jeremy Tyler and Klay Thompson in its starting lineup. Los Angeles won on the road for only the 11th time this season.
From Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Brown yanked Andrew Bynum from the game early in the third quarter after the center badly missed a three-point shot, though Bynum appeared amused on the bench as he mimicked the form on his release. “That’s something that I thought could have taken us out of rhythm, so I took him out of the game,” Brown said. … Did Brown talk to him about the shot? “Not yet,” Bynum said. “I’m sure he wants to.” … The night held some historical significance for Bryant, who moved into second place on the list of points scored by a player for one franchise when he surpassed Michael Jordan’s 29,277 points with the Chicago Bulls. With 29,283 points as a Laker, Bryant trails only Karl Malone, who scored 36,374 points for Utah. Although Bryant said Bynum’s three-pointer was “not that big a deal to me” because he didn’t think the center would take many of them, Lakers forward Pau Gasol indicated that the matter needed to be addressed. “Hopefully it’s just one night,” said Gasol, who had 19 points and 17 rebounds. “We’ll try to get it right for all of our interests. It’s not about one individual, so we’ll be fine. Andrew understands. He’s a good guy and he’ll do the right thing.”
Never a dull day in Lakerland, eh?
They now hold a 2 1/2 game lead over the Clippers in the Pacific Division., and although their co-tenants at the Staples Center sit in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, they are up only three on the loss column over ninth-place Houston.
“Why is everybody acting like we’re in eighth place?” Bryant said. “You guys were kissing the Clippers’ [butts] at the start of the season, and now we’re in the third seed and everybody’s acting like we [stink]. I don’t understand it.”
The next and last Lakers-Clippers meeting of the regular season is now just one week away.
At the top of the conference sit the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have held that perch for pretty much the entire season by never having anything remotely resembling a prolonged slump.
But sitting three games behind them (two in the loss column) are the San Antonio Spurs, who had nearly their whole team together in Phoenix as coach Gregg Popovich declined to give anyone other than Stephen Jackson a random day off.
Tony Parker scored eight points in a 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter, and the Spurs went on to win their fifth in a row and eighth in nine games with a 107-100 victory over the Suns. Tim Duncan scored 17 of his 26 points in the first half and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Spurs, winners of 12 of their past 14 road games. Parker scored half of his 24 in the fourth quarter.
From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic: “The Suns’ are 11-5 this month, with losses to four of the NBA’s top five teams, but it is the home loss that hurts most for at team that plays eight of its next 10 games on the road and is two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Shannon Brown, starting in place of Grant Hill (sore knee), gave the Suns (25-25) a career-high 32 points, and the Suns led the Spurs (34-14) until the final minute of the third quarter. The Suns entered the fourth trailing 84-83 but lost the game when San Antonio guard Tony Parker, whom Hill would have defended, scored eight points in a 10-0 run that put the Spurs ahead 98-87 with 5:59 to go. “Every game puts more pressure on us, no matter if it’s home or road,” Suns point guard Steve Nash said. “We’re running out of games here. We’ve got to find a way to get more and more games over .500. We’ve got to catch up to these teams ahead of us. To do that, we’re going to play a lot of good teams that we have to play at a high level. We’ve got 16 games left. We’ve got to try to play every single one we can and see if we can make something happen.”
Patty Mills, signed by the Spurs earlier in the day, saw four minutes of playing time. A bigger contribution came from newcomer Boris Diaw, who was a plus-14 in his 18 minutes and had six points, four rebounds, two steals and two assists.
From Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News: “His abilities were showcased late in the third quarter in a span of less than four minutes. Diaw started the flurry with a crisp pass to Manu Ginobili for an open 18-foot jumper. He then grabbed a rebound and threw in a 5-foot hook on the same possession. And he capped it with an impressive pass that Kawhi Leonard turned into a dunk that gave the Spurs an 85-84 lead for the final points of the third quarter. The Spurs never trailed from that point forward as their new point forward was a key in the turnaround, as Diaw finished with a team-best plus-14 to lead the second-half comeback. … Diaw is a kind of a “Swiss army knife” positionally who will fill a variety of roles for the Spurs. He immediately makes them deeper at all three frontcourt positions. His teammates can’t wait to work with him as he finds his place in the Spurs’ deepest rotation since their championship teams. “I need to play with Boris a lot, to get used when he’s going to roll or pass and the same for him with me,” Ginobili said. “We need time together, but it looks promising. I’m excited.” The acquisition of Diaw is already paying dividends as his acquisition might rank as the steal of the trade deadline over the next few weeks. After four games, it looks like his new coach won’t complain much if Diaw doesn’t shoot much.”
Notables from the night’s other five games:
- Russell Westbrook finished with 32 points and eight assists to lead the Thunder to their fourth straight win, 109-95 at Portland. Kevin Durant scored 25 points, and James Harden added 21 off the bench for the Thunder, who built a 65-47 lead by halftime, let the advantage slip to five, then regained control behind a pair of jumpers by Westbrook. OKC is going to be a worthy watch over the next several days, playing the Lakers on the road Thursday and the Bulls at home on Sunday.
- The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 16 in the first quarter and didn’t overtake a short-handed and worn-out Rockets team until Jason Terry’s seven consecutive points started a 21-6 run in the third quarter of a 90-81 victory. Coming up in two nights, the Mavs have an NBA Finals rematch against the reeling Miami Heat. The Rockets, coming off an overtime victory the previous night against Sacramento, fell a half-game behind Denver for eighth place in the West.
- Sixth place in the West belongs to the Memphis Grizzlies, who overcame the absence of Marc Gasol (ankle) to defeat Minnesota 93-86. The Grizzlies were 0-for-11 from 3-point range, and Gilbert Arenas was a DNP-CD. The Grizzlies have made 185 3-pointers as a team this season, or 42 more than league leader Ryan Anderson of Orlando has made by himself.
- Monta Ellis finally found his stroke for his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks, in a 108-101 victory over Atlanta. Coming off a four-point game the previous night at New York, Ellis made 15 of 24 shots, going 7-for-9 in the fourth quarter, and adding eight assists. “It was only a matter of time, and the time was tonight,” coach Scott Skiles said.
- Jodie Meeks started in place of Andre Iguodala (knee tendinitis) and made 7 of 10 3-pointers in a 103-85 victory over Cleveland. Meeks was only the second Sixer this season to reach the 30-point mark this season.