Despite the Loss, The Monster is Out of the Cage: Los Angeles Lakers 100, New Jersey Nets 88

Box Score – Forum Blue and GoldSilver Screen and Roll

With more than half of the New Jersey Nets’ roster expected to be shipped out any day now, it’s going to be very difficult to objectively judge this team for the remainder of this road trip. For example, because of the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors, does anyone in Nets-land really care that I saw a couple of instances of positive play from Derrick Favors last night despite his overall ugly stat line (0 points, 0-6 shooting, 5 rebounds, 4 fouls in 20 minutes)? In the same vain, is anyone at this point really going to get up-in-arms about Devin Harris scoring 6 points and turning the ball over 7 times? Both of these guys are clearly not in the team’s plans, so what’s the point in me sitting here and dwelling too much on these players (and the six others who are rumored to be shipped out).

Fortunately, for the sake of the English language and Nets Are Scorching readers everywhere, someone who is not rumored to be going anywhere in the three-team megadeal expected to go down on Tuesday, had such a breakthrough game that for now, for at least one more day, I am left with something to legitimately break down in a recap. For the record, the final score last night’s game in Los Angeles was Lakers 100, Nets 88, but the final score is almost irrelevant. Sure, an upset would have been nice, but was undoubtedly a long shot given the wealth of talent on the Lakers and the lack of talent on the Nets. The Nets were able to hang around for the bulk of the game, even leading by two points after the first quarter, and cutting their deficit as close as two early in the fourth, but that performance was accomplished by a team that is not going to exist in a few days, so I honestly don’t care. What I really care about from last night was Brook Lopez, who had his best game of the season, and might have played one of his most perfect games of his career.

And what’s better, the final stat line is about as impressive as the way Lopez got there: 35 points on 13-19 shooting, and 9-11 from the free throw line. A block, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and ZERO turnovers. Sure, as has been the case all season for Lopez, you’d like to see better rebounding numbers, but even so, he looked more aggressive on the glass last night than he’s done in weeks. At the 7:12 mark in the first quarter, he scored two of his point after grabbing an offensive rebound and putting the ball back up with a pretty baby hook. Late in the second quarter, on a pair of free throws, Lopez grabbed the defensive board after emphatically boxing out Pau Gasol with his left arm, demonstrating sheer brute strength that the Center has not been showcasing this year, leading some fans (and myself to a degree) if the bout of mono last summer has really affected his season.

On the offensive end, Lopez attacked the basket without mercy. Early in the first, he dribbled and drove to the basket from blocks, sinking the basket with his left hand and getting fouled in the process – showing great touch around the rim. With a little more than 2 minutes to go in the quarter, he got the ball in the post, face-up and glided to the basket for a one-handed dunk. Early in the third quarter, with the Lakers making one of their many runs to try and put this game away, Lopez got the ball in the post again and with Pau Gasol guarding him, found a small seam to his right, spun, and dunked the ball with two hands, drawing the foul. And Lopez did the vast majority of his damage from either the paint or the post, only attempting two jumpers from beyond 15-feet (and sinking one of them – a beautiful 19-footer in the first half of the third, which made the Lakers defense stay honest on him when he got the ball from 15-feet out). He rarely held the ball too long (one instance in the third quarter led to an attempted steal by Derek Fisher, and leaving the Nets with three seconds on the shot clock – one of the only poor possessions by Brook all game).

Meanwhile, while Lopez was putting on the clinic, looking like the best player on the court for stretches (though Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol still say “what up”), the Lakers young Center, Andrew Bynum, was in constant foul trouble trying to guard Brook. Bynum finished 1-5 with 2 points in 22 minutes (and 5 fouls). For the second half, the duty of guarding Lopez was mainly relegated to smaller players, Gasol and Lamar Odom. Lopez finished 7-10 from the field.

But the most interesting part of this performance was the timing. While Lopez has not been mentioned in any trade talks, there was a flurry of subtle activity earlier this week that indicated that there might have been some heat between Brook and coach Avery Johnson (my concerns, echoing Ball Don’t Lie’s Kelly Dwyer’s, here). While it appears that the bulk of the Nets fan base (or those who choose to comment on blogs) seems to be “tough nuggets Brook. Who cares if Avery is being mean to you” I don’t think it can be ignored that Lopez’s best game of the season came immediately after he was caught on television dropping the “F” bomb in Avery’s direction while being benched during OT in Phoenix Wednesday night. Did Lopez respond to Avery’s motivational ploy or was he just so pissed off that he went out there and played meaner and more aggressively? I don’t care, but I loved the performance and if you add Anthony and some grizzled vets like Rip Hamilton and Chauncy Billups to a team that features a meaner, stronger Lopez, it’s going to shut up a lot of people who think Anthony is making a mistake choosing Jersey/Brooklyn over Duh Gahden and Amare’s time-bomb knees.

A few more thoughts after the break:

I know I promised not to dwell on too many other Nets, but just a quick note on defensive strategy. While the Nets played a lot of zone (unsuccessfully – I love how the team slipped into a 2-3 in the third quarter, and Gasol calmly hit a tough-angled 15-footer to bust it) I was looking to see who Avery was going to throw at Kobe in one-on-one situations. I saw Avery’s “defensive ace” Stephen Graham get many assignments, as well as Jordan Farmar and Quinton Ross. But no Sasha Vujacic, who I thought, given how much “The Machine” seemed to piss Bryant off during their stay together in LA, would have been the perfect guy to maybe get Kobe off his game.

Speaking of Sasha, nice comeback to LA performance from a point perspective (17) but man alive Sasha, your shot selection is horrendous. He was 2-9 from three and he only stands to have more nights like that if he’s the designated “gunner” on this team after Anthony Morrow is shipped out for ‘Melo.

Just a quick glimpse of the box score and I’m starting to understand more and more why the front office is so desperate just to hit the browser refresh button. Outside of Lopez, no one else in the starting lineup scored more than 6 points and two guys (Favors and Graham) were completely shut out, despite playing at least 20 minutes each. Meanwhile, Kris Humphries continues to rebound (15 total), but his 3-12 shot performance was eerily similar to last season’s Black Hole Humphries phase.