If you want a textbook case on the difference between a good and great coach, look at the closing sequences of last night's game, as Gregg Popovich designed a masterful final possession to take advantage of Kobe Bryant's tendency to help too much into the lane and Bernie Bickerstaff wasn't able to counter by getting it to his best player for the final shot. We sometimes make too much out of specific instances of tactical brilliance -- Mike Brown had some pretty nifty out-of-bounds plays last year to his credit -- but this was a clear example of a more disciplined team that managed to eke out a close win over one that was not. The Lakers had a lead going into the final minute and couldn't maintain it down the stretch, about a clear a validation as any of this notion.
This noted, what the Lakers did manage to do, despite having the first two point guards on their depth chart injured, an interim coach who has freely admitted that he is going without a system and telling the guys out there just to play, and some truly oddball lineups over the course of the game, was truly impressive. The Lakers held the Spurs, one of the league's best offensive squads, to a 44.3 TS%, a spectacular defensive performance. That this happened with no real defensive system in place only makes this even more laudatory. Although the Lakers could not respond equally on the offensive end, the greater freedom with which they played despite again, the third and fourth string point guards playing, was a big change from previous weeks. Make no mistake: the team that lost to Utah last week gets crushed by 20. This real development happening in front of us and the firing of Mike Brown looks pretty justifiable with the benefit of hindsight, no?
- Kobe Bryant -- This is getting ridiculous. Kobe's vast efficiency jump simply defies rational explanation at this juncture. He has done basically everything he needed to in order to make the transition from a midrange gunner to an efficiency maven, taking less long twos and instead getting his shots at the rim and on catch-and-shoot opportunities from behind the arc. Best of all, he's making it look utterly effortless. Watch him round a pick -- and it must be said that the bigs are giving him some great screens; Andrew Bynum's half-assed attempts they are not -- and immediately go up for a wide open jumper or cleave his way straight to the rim if there is a lane. The return of his handle has helped immensely in this regard, but it is Kobe's decision-making that is shining through. On a night that would have been a classic time for the Kobe chuckmaster to show up and launch contested shots -- marquee opponent, no real point guard on the floor; hell, him being the point guard for a good chunk of the game -- he put up a 70.42 TS%. That's just nuts. And we haven't even talked about the fact that he ran the point well, notching eight assists against only two turnovers. Is there any doubt left about his ability to fit into D'Antoni's system?
- Darius Morris -- While Morris put up the stats two games ago against the Warriors, yours truly would argue that this was his career best game, playing better defense on Tony Parker than any other Laker point guard in recent memory. When was the last time the Lakers faced a super fast point guard and not only did the Lakers' defender at the point fight through the screen, but stay with the ballhandler on the drive? Combining great length for the point guard position with quick feet, Morris was doing about as good of a job as anyone in a Lakers uniform since Phil Jackson used to stick Trevor Ariza in this role. His offense still needs to come along -- although he did make a really slick pass in transition to a streaking Bryant for an easy layup -- but given the huge dearth of perimeter athleticism on the team, one would hope he continues to get reps in real game situations to develop.
- Dwight Howard -- Howard was the other half of the defensive effort, quashing attempts at penetration off the pick-and-roll and acting as a huge deterrent in the interior. And believe it or not, he's still not 100%, but notched 13 points, 15 rebounds, and a trio of blocks nevertheless. The only downside to his game really has been witnessing his turnover issues, as it seems to be written in giant neon letters on his scouting report that you can strip the ball from him when he brings the ball low before trying to obliterate the rim. This will get better when the Lakers' point guards return and Howard starts to get a lot more of his points as a roll man and a cutter, but you would hope that Darvin Ham and Phil Handy are helping him with this in practice.
- Jordan Hill -- So let us get this straight: Mitch Kupchak traded a washed up, ancient point guard in Derek Fisher and a Mavericks first rounder with protection strong enough that the Lakers weren't going to receive it for a long while for an athletic offensive rebounding machine who has become the new anchor of their bench unit. Hill has a ways to go in terms of finesse in the post and elsewhere on offense, but he's hit midrange shots, nailed running hook shots in the lane, and thrown his body around in the interior to try to squeeze out extra possessions for the team. His defense, especially against the pick-and-roll, was solid, and he notched three blocks in only 18 minutes. He does need to take greater care with the aforementioned willingness to throw his body around, as he got a minor injury that might keep him out against Phoenix on Friday.
- Honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol, who still had a decent game even though he left us with a bad taste in our mouths with an ill-advised three pointer to try to win the game. As with the above two names, he worked hard defensively and while he's not the same level of pick-and-roll defender, he is perfectly serviceable in the post, especially when he plays center. On a night on which the Lakers lacked a real point guard, Pau also stepped up his playmaking ability, accruing five assists, and lest we only remember him by the final possession, got the Lakers their last four points. His midrange jumper was on point more than usual lately and hopefully this continues when D'Antoni ball starts with gusto later this week.
- Chris Duhon -- The happiest person on the court when Morris checked out of the game for Duhon was Tony Parker, who absolutely eviscerated Duhon at every opportunity. For all of his defensive reputation, Duhon was quite ordinary against one of the league's best point guards. His offense was respectable, but man, his dribbling needs a lot of work, as simple ball pressure made it awfully hard for him to bring it across halfcourt. It really shouldn't be that surprising that Duhon has struggled as he did given that he's our fourth string point guard, but he's a far cry from the eleven point, seven assist a game player he was under D'Antoni in '08-'09.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks' struggles last night were partly a result of the fact that there was no one on the floor to create plays and allow him to operate as a spot-up shooter. Put him on the court with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and he'll do much better. This is because that he's an absolutely abysmal dribbler who got three turnovers in only ten minutes on wayward drives to the rim. He doesn't have the hops to make himself a threat to score at the rim and no one will ever confuse him as an expert pick-and-roll operator anytime soon. If he confines himself to his role, one suspects that he'll do just fine. This hopefully will be forthcoming under D'Antoni's system and once the Lakers' stable of point guards is replenished.
- Metta World Peace -- The number of times that MWP should have more shot attempts than both Dwight and Pau should be zero, and it's happened in three (!) instances this year, including last night. To be fair, MWP is going to have to shoot that much from time to time because defenses will understandably take away the interior and leave him wide open in the corner. Still, his shot selection left something to be desired and (nearly) every time he puts on the floor is less effective than the alternatives. On defense, MWP did a respectable job, although guarding Tony Parker is beyond him at this point in his career given his declining foot speed and inability to work through screens with alacrity.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Antawn Jamison, who didn't kill the Lakers playing at the three -- and with Devin Ebanks out, there are few alternatives there, although with a smaller Spurs team as an opponent, one wishes Kobe could have been put at the three a bit more -- but wasn't that effective either. He hit a key three down the stretch and scored on a post-up with his absolutely bizarre arsenal around the rim, but again, he needs to be involved in the offense a lot more. At the three, he needs to be posted up. When playing the four, he needs spot-up opportunities and to put the ball on the floor from time to time. The Lakers didn't bring him in to be a low usage guy off the bench: they need him to eat possessions for their bench unit.