So, that optimism vanished fairly quickly, no? In a stretch against four serious playoff teams, the Lakers' inadequacies on offense were exposed in possibly the most painful way imaginable. Blame tired legs, the lockout, or similar -- and by all means, on some level, you have to blame no legs for a shooting performance as putrid as the ones that have been put up recently -- but the Lakers failed to step up to the plate, and unsurprisingly, we again have a bit of a crisis of confidence in Laker Land. The glass half-full approach is that the Lakers' losses on the road are nothing to fret about. Save for Portland and Miami, all of the Lakers' away games were on a back-to-back, and I doubt anyone favored us against the aforementioned two teams regardless. Still, you would expect a contending team to pull out a win or two, or at least be competitive in these kinds of games, and the Lakers simply aren't there right now. It certainly does not mean that the Lakers cannot reach that lofty plateau, as judging this the be-all, end-all final product of how the Lakers will look in April is remarkably premature, but they certainly have their work cut out for them. In any case, let's review a few of the recent contributors, and those who were less than so.
- Kobe Bryant -- As Chris noted, lost in the painfully bad offensive show that was last night's Orlando game is that Kobe arguably had one of his most effective games of the year. If there has been any criticism to put against Kobe in years past, it is that there appeared to be a fairly binary split between his "distributing" and "scoring" modes. He would switch from being remarkably passive to full-on Mamba mode without the two being well-integrated. Against Orlando, however, he was masterful. Using the pick-and-roll to create space for himself, he forced the defense to react to him, and in so doing, either created a wealth of open looks for himself or his teammates. That it resulted in a giant pile of bricks for everyone else should not detract from how critically important it is that Kobe continues such a performance. If this team is to compete in the long-term, it needs all the players on the floor to be producing, and Kobe creating for them in such a manner is one way to do so. He even had a number of nice cuts to the basket in which he received sweet feeds from Gasol at the high post, showing he could be effective off the ball as well. In many ways, this performance was more astounding than his spree of 40 point games -- it was a beautiful synthesis of all aspects of Kobe's game, and sans another creator on the floor, it goes without saying that he needs to continue to do so.
- Pau Gasol -- Not necessarily his offense either, although he put in a few classic Pau hook shots in the lane that have been missing from his arsenal for over a year, but his sublime defense. If any player has embraced Mike Brown's penchant for defending, it has been Pau. He has been the team's best pick-and-roll defender, using his mobility and length to bother ballhandlers on the hard hedge, and has been solid in straight-up post defense as well. It was not Bynum that best defended Howard last night, but Pau, who used his length and speed to deny Howard his spots and force him into tough bank shots, rather than Bynum's more physical approach that resulted in a series of fouls. Thankfully, this seems to be a trend this year, as Pau has done a number on quite a few explosive offensive players this year, whether it was his inspired defense on Dirk Nowitzki on Monday, or Al Jefferson and Amar'e Stoudemire earlier in the year. So while we clamor for Pau to pick up his offense to the same level it was during his MVP-quality start to last season -- although to his credit, no player on this team is better at filling the spaces on the floor for open shots, and this offense is as big a transition for him as it is for anybody -- he deserves some serious props for what he has brought on the other end.
- Ball movement -- It was there. Whether it was only a fleeting glimpse of the moment or the beginning of a long-term trend, we finally had some semblance of a real offense, if only someone could figure out how to make the orange ball go into the hoop. In the second half, however, players were cutting decisively, making passes to the extra man, and putting pressure on Orlando's defense. This wasn't all Kobe mind you, as everyone seemingly embraced the concept that actually running the offense would be a good thing. Quite simply, there is no other path towards long-term success, and if this is a sign that the offense finally might be getting back on-track, then it is greatly heartening.
- Honorable mention goes to Troy Murphy for finally figuring out that he needs to shoot off dishes from Kobe in pick-and-pop action, although given the team's moribund shooting, it would be nice if he stepped behind the line more often. His bad shooting night and putrid defense notwithstanding, it is at least a positive development. (And yes, I'm grasping for straws here.)
- The shooting -- The law of averages has to kick in at some point, right? The difference really between the Lakers being a marginal playoff squad and a serious contender is three-point shooting, and right now their shooting is so bad as to be borderline comical. It is hard to find an explanation for it beyond tired legs. In the first half against Orlando last night, the vast majority of the shots being put up from the perimeter were absolutely wide open...and they just weren't going down. The fact that a certain Dwight Howard was in the middle ensured that those shots would be the Lakers' last shots of any possession, as the Lakers only mustered eight offensive rebounds on the night. As diagnosing the cause is difficult, finding a solution is equally so. Beyond grabbing a D-League player who can do so -- Elijah Millsap? Blake Ahearn? -- the only apparent cure-all seems to be rest. Per above, the Lakers absolutely have to maintain the level of ball movement they did last night, and hopefully, it will eventually lead to that ball going through the net.
- Metta World Peace -- His fall is the most baffling. Whether it is conditioning, signs of Father Time, or some inexplicable problem, MWP's struggles have embodied those of the entire bench unit. He has developed a Rajon Rondo-esque accuracy from the perimeter and all but abandoned the post game that made him an effective option in the first few games of the season. On the other end, he seems more and more prone to being burned by perimeter players, and indeed, the only notable defensive play I can recall is when he had Howard on him in the post and didn't concede an inch of space, forcing Howard to kick it out. If this means that MWP can become Chuck Hayes v.2 is another matter entirely, but there simply needs to be improvement from MWP or the decision by Brown not to play Devin Ebanks will grow more and more indefensible.
- Mike Brown -- And finally, onto Brown. Before this week, he was doing just fine. The team was defending with purpose, and while the offense was sustained by a series of superlative Kobe scoring performances, he at least acknowledged that he couldn't continue doing so. Well, that sentiment has shifted quite a bit. The lack of full practices still, to some extent, excuses the offensive inadequacy, although the level of ball movement and work off the pick-and-roll at least says that he's getting some of what he wants across at that end. No, the biggest quibble is his overtaxing of the starters in a shortened season that is already clearing having a toll on them. Save for Kobe Bryant, he of the legendary conditioning and work ethic, every other player is affected by fatigue, and it manifests itself either in the team's putrid shooting numbers or on the defensive boards. Keeping the starters in against Miami was s more or less boneheaded decision, and with a breather stretch of four games in nine days coming up, it is hard to say that keeping them in for practice purposes was needed either. As noted above, this is certainly not the be-all, end-all product of the Mike Brown Lakers, and there is still a lot of time to turn the ship around, but now is the time to begin that process.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Darius Morris for more or less continuing to show that he needs some D-League seasoning. The continued lack of pick-and-roll the team is involving him in continues to be maddening, but he is playing way, way too fast right now, a typical rookie problem but one that is hurting the team. Another one to Andrew Bynum's defense on Dwight Howard, which Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy correctly and astutely recognized as being explicitly the wrong way to cover Howard. That Pau did such a good job later is testament to the importance of know-how in defense as much as raw physical talent.