Going into tonight's game, there seemed a strong possibility that the Los Angeles Lakers might end up losing a third straight game to start the season. All the reasons came pre-loaded for just such an eventuality; a heart-breaking opening day loss at home, a terrible effort against a poor opponent the next night, Kobe Bryant injured and completely unaware of his own injury, a front line weakened by the absense of Andrew Bynum due to suspension, a general lack of quality depth, and worst of all, a third game in just three nights. Sure, the opponent was another bad team in the Utah Jazz, and the Lakers were at home, but in a season sure to be full of schedule losses, it wouldn't have been all that surprising if the Lakers were to have one tonight.
But, for the first time in quite a while, the basketball gods decided to give the Lakers a break. Instead of the bad team we expected to be tonight's opponent, the gods sent one of the most pathetic displays you are ever likely to see in a professional basketball environment. The Jazz were bad in ways I didn't even know was possible, and the Lakers were smart enough to just stand in the right spots and let the Jazz stab their own eyes out. I'm not sure how much the victory tells you about any progress the Lakers might be making, but they desperately needed a win, and a convincing win was what they got.
There are certainly some plaudits to hand out. Kobe Bryant was pretty brilliant, playing under control and shooting almost entirely within the flow of the offense (save for a little fun had at Raja Bell's expense when Kobe found himself back on the court in a 4th quarter that was well out of hand). He ended with 26 points on 17 shots, which is an impressive conversion ratio for any player. Pau Gasol had an extra spring in his step, displaying far more aggression than either of the first two games this season in going for 22 points on 11 shots and 9 boards. Most importantly, he was fantastic with interior defending, blocking 5 shots and holding fellow pivot Al Jefferson to a LOLfully woeful 2-16 shooting. Rare will be the occasion in which Pau Gasol is actually a better athlete than his defensive charge, but Pau did a great job of utilizing his huge length to make life miserable on a front line that appears on paper to be decently strong.
Outside the big two, there were plenty of positives, which is itself a positive on the back of a game with almost nothing good to say. The Lakers connected on their outside shots at an OK rate (37.5% from three point range), and the point guards seemed almost competent on the night. Josh McRoberts played a little more fluidly than last night, and Troy Murphy, despite not scoring and missing all three of his shots, continues to look like a very strong pick-up. Tonight, he did his damage on the boards, picking up 11 in total, and Odomian minutes (31) off the bench, which allowed Pau Gasol to at least keep the minute count under 40.
But there were two elements of tonight's contest that far out-shone the rest in terms of communicating anything positive about this Laker team's identity. The first is the continued excellent play of Metta World Peace. There is no other way to say it, MWP is simply thriving in his role as the Lakers' 6th man. Working primarily in the post, the closest comparison to what we've seen from MWP in the past two games would be to Shaq, except if Shaq was playing on a 12 foot rim. MWP has little athleticism left, but he remains one of the strongest players in the league, and has shown an agility in utilizing spin moves and a decent first step that we had all but forgotten he possessed. Based on Ron Artest's finishing last year, this development was completely unanticipated, and even better, the success Peace has found inside is translating into a highly successful (so far, at least) mid range game based on fade-aways and step back jumpers. For two straight games, teams have been forced to double Artest in the post, and when that's occurred, he's done a great job of kicking the ball out to the open man on the perimeter. There have been too few games for us to come to any definitive approval of this arrangement, but credit has to be given to Mike Brown and the coaching staff for getting more out of the player than Phil Jackson ever could. More and more, MWP as leader of the bench unit is looking just crazy enough to work.
The second element to take solace in was a much improved defensive effort over the previous night. This is important for two reasons: One, it shows that the Bulls game was not a complete and utter fluke, and that despite the defensive shortcomings of certain individuals on this team (read: nearly all of them), the team itself can still be capable of strong defensive cohesion. Tonight, rotations were much more on point, penetration was kept to a minimum and, as previously mentioned, the bigs were fantastic in protecting the rim and making shots just difficult enough for the Jazz to convert at a woeful rate. The other reason for smiles is that this all occurred on the Lakers third game in three nights. With the season just beginning, the Lakers are likely never to be more fresh than they were in tackling this b2b2b but still, considering the Lakers have logged 360 collective minutes over the past 75 hours, it would have been completely understandable, and was actually downright expected, for the Lakers to come out lagging.
But read too much into this game at your own risk, because Utah was the most superlative, hyperbolic kind of terrible imaginable. The Jazz shot just over 30% from the floor, and less than 10% from three point range. They repeatedly had possessions consisting of 3-4 offensive rebounds, because no matter how many times they got the ball back, they could not hit any sort of put backs. Neither of their "franchise" big men, Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter, did anything to impress. Al Jefferson is the center equivalent of Derek Fisher, and Paul Millsap looks like he can't wait to get out of town. It's tough to kill a team after just one night, but it certainly appears as though Utah will be looking at a deep lottery run this spring. That the Lakers played with decent energy in the 3rd game in three nights is impressive, but neither the size nor comprehensiveness of the victory should do anything to allay any concerns you might have picked up over the week. The Lakers still have a lot of work to do to resemble even close to the kind of team that we spoiled Lakers fans have come to expect. They just ran into a team that has a lot more work to do to resemble even close to the kind of team that pays people large amounts of money to play basketball.
All in all, the Lakers needed a night in which they didn't need to be their best to win., and boy did they ever get it. We needed a night where we just got to watch the players we love without having to spend any time worrying about the result. This was a game where you could latch onto a meme like #TheLakersAreSoWhite and just ride that wave of humor all the way to the finish line. We needed a night where I could pine for the first ever All Small Forwards line-up ... and nearly get my wish. We needed a chance to breathe easy, and that's what we got. Sometimes, bad games make the best good games.