LOS ANGELES If anyone had doubts about the Lakers ability to play dominant, winning basketball in the NBA Playoffs without the suspended Metta Word Peace and with seldom-used players getting more minutes, the question was answered emphatically Sunday afternoon at STAPLES Center.
Yes they do.
Devin Ebanks, starting in World Peace's place and came up with 12 points and 5 rebounds on 5 of 6 shooting, joined by the latest Laker phenomJordan Hillwho had another double-double with ten points and ten rebounds. Steve Blake went 3-for-5 from behind the three point arc in the first half, ending up with 10 points and four assists, and Matt Barnes ignored a badly-sprained ankle to grab six rebounds and contribute four steals as third-seeded Los Angeles never trailed in beating the Denver Nuggets 103-88.
The Lakers take a 1-0 lead into Game Two, Tuesday night.
The Big Three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum predictably led the decimation of the sixth-seeded Nuggets.
Bryantwho had played just once since April 6th due to a bruised shin--scored 31 points with 5 rebounds and four assists. Bynum had his first-ever triple-double13 rebounds, 10 points and 10 blocks, while Gasol nearly matched Bynum's feat with 13 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
For Bynum, it was a record-tying afternoon, his 10 blocks tying Hakeem Olajuwon's all-time NBA playoff record; his triple-double was the first by a Lakers since Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals against the Chicago Bulls, Johnson's last-ever Finals appearance.
However, Lakers followers are used to those types of performances from three All Star-caliber players, including one of the game's all-time greats in Bryant. But for Ebanks, Hill and Blake to play so well in a playoff atmosphere isn't necessarily expected, but is definitely required if the Lakers are to go deep into the post-season.
Bryant said that his recent absence and the suspension of World Peace requires some of the players to maximize their abilities.
"You sometimes have to force the game upon them," a somewhat reserved Bryant said during his post-game interviews. "It's very easy sometimes when a player has a lot of talent to want to do everything, but that's not going to get it done. You have to have everybody on the court that can make (the right) decisions, (and) feel comfortable making decisions.
"It makes us a better team."
As does a young player going through a roller coaster-type season, yet keeping himself invested in the team in case his big moment comes up unexpectedly.
"I've just worked as hard as I can so I would be ready when my number was called," said Ebanks, who started the first four games of the year, then played so sparingly he was demoted to the D-League, where he average 18.3 points in three games. "I'm just happy to be out there right now.
"I kept my spirits up the whole time, and now hopefully I'll keep playing well and show that I belong out there."
Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, who led Denver with 19 points, says Ebanks was much better than they realized.
"We were a little bit (surprised) how he played," Gallinari said. "He was getting open shots and hitting them, hitting big shots and his teammates were finding him as he was cutting to the basket. He's good playing without the ball. We need to respect him a little bit more because he was important for them (today)."
Ebanks' accomplishments since his playing time increased may have taken many by surprise, but not Bryant, who said he like former West Virginia Mountaineer's talent the first time he saw him.
"He has a lot of belief in himself," Bryant said, "(and) he also puts the work in, puts the time in, and he's willing to study the mental side of the game. For him, it's not just about shooting the ball or the physical part of the game. He really works on his mental approach."
Which he showed when asked whether he's thinks he's earned more playing time, even when World Peace returns.
"Exactly," he answered. Then with a big smile on his face added: "But that's up to Mike Brown. I just need to stay ready."