After starting the season with the burden of championship expectations and very little team cohesion, Mike Brown had to be the scapegoat for Los Angeles' 1-4 start. Brown was put in somewhat unfair circumstances - having a chance to coach your full starting five for less than 100 minutes, including pre-season, while being expected to win games in the NBA is tough - but his system simply wasn't getting through to the players and the Buss family had to decide whether or not he was worth betting the rest of the season on. Based on his performance last year, they chose against it, and fired him before last night's game.
So, in the first game of the Bernie Bickerstaff era, which shouldn't last more than a week, Los Angeles simplified things and let their talent dictate the outcome of the game rather than operating through a system.
The Lakers let the game flow through the post without fidgeting around with backpicks or pindowns to establish deeper position or a mismatch. They simply put Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard on the block, threw them the ball and then basketball ensued. The defense was collapsing from all angles, allowing Pau, Kobe and Howard to hit the open shooter and the open cutter all game long. And even without Princeton action, the Lakers were able to generate some off-ball movement that we haven't grown accustomed to over the past few years.
And then there was Kobe, who started the game off by taking it right at Klay Thompson on the block and turning it over. While that was a sore sight, it was a bit refreshing to see Kobe be that aggressive rather than just trying to initiate the Princeton stuff or spotting up. While we all want the load on Kobe to be lightened, he's still incredibly effective when posting up 15 feet from the basket and he showed that last night.
Bryant favored the right side of the floor all night, switching between the baseline and the right elbow as his operating spot throughout the night. The Lakers frequently ran a pick-and-roll between Kobe and Gasol at the elbow with Bryant having his back to the basket. It worked beautifully most of the time, resulting in some wide open spot-up looks and it allowed Pau to take advantage of a rotating defense when he caught the ball on the roll. It was the kind of two man game that we saw sparingly over the first five games and the Lakers looked a lot more comfortable on the floor last night.
Bryant finished with 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting, a positive sign that he can still be incredibly efficient without getting the majority of his baskets on Princeton action (you can thank his improved shooting from long range for that), while also compiling nine rebounds and seven assists. The only thing keeping Kobe from having the most efficient season of the #24 era in terms of PER is his turnover rate. He's turned the ball over on a ridiculous 15.3% of his possessions (he had four last night). Other than that, Kobe has looked great, and by the way he is talking about Phil Jackson, it sounds like he may be even more motivated to perform if gets another chance to play for the Zen Master. And perhaps the most important stat for Kobe last night was 33. Just 33 minutes for the Black Mamba last night thanks to the blowout.
Pau Gasol didn't have the best of shooting nights yesterday, making only six of his 18 shots, but he played with energy every minute he was on the floor, which is a welcome sight from him. He grabbed 16 rebounds, was active defensively and made some good reads off of pick-and-roll action. Dwight didn't look bad either, though foul trouble and the score meant he only had to play 22 minutes, which is a good thing. The Lakers mostly operated the two man game with Kobe and Gasol so Dwight didn't get that many touches on the roll or in the post but his defense looked like it was continuing to improve.
The bench had it's best game of the season yesterday and it's fitting that it came on the day that Mike Brown got fired. Two scored in double figures (14 for Jordan Hill, 10 for Darius Morris) and Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks combined to add another 13. Morris still makes the occasional "out of control" blunder but he's actually been a more effective spot-up three point shooter than Steve Blake has this season and he showed some nice playmaking ability last night (five assists to one turnover). Hill was his usual active self and even put in an off-balance 15-jumper (a shot he showed he's capable of hitting in Houston). And who would have thought that he most impressive block of the season thus far would come from 36-year old defensive sieve Antawn Jamison? You don't come into Jamison's house expecting to reverse dunk, Richard Jefferson.
It may have been because Devin Ebanks was arrested yesterday morning, but seeing Meeks on the floor was obviously a good thing after he had been in Mike Brown's doghouse for whatever reason. Meeks needs to be in the rotation as he's the best shooter on the team and a capable defender. He may have missed his shots last night, but once he gets into a rhythm he should become the Lakers' most productive back-up guard. Whenever the new coach comes in, Meeks will have a clean slate, so we can only assume he'll be back in the rotation for good soon.
Just about the only bad thing that happened last night was Metta World Peace taking the floor. He missed his first 10 shots of the game (and his first five from deep) and was virtually useless in every facet of the game. He may be the only reason that Phil Jackson doesn't want to come back. On the brightside, Metta's kissing game has never been better.
I don't think you can take much away from Los Angeles' defensive performance last night simply because there were at least 15 possessions last night when the Warriors walked up the court and jacked up the first half-open three they set their eyes on. What we can be happy with is LA winning the rebounding battle by a wide margin as well as out-assisting the Warriors by 10. Given the situations that the Lakers are in, I guess we should worry about winning games before we start talking about takeaways, so I suppose a 24-point blowout isn't a bad way to start this homestand.
Oh, and how about those "We want Phil!" chants last night? Laker fans get a lot of flack for their in-game activity level but that was really cool.