"It's a process..."
Dwight Howard spins around his defender and leaps into the air, grabbing just enough of the ball to guide it down for a one handed lob dunk from Kobe Bryant. Boom; Rockets detonated.
"Give it time..."
Kobe Bryant takes a high screen from Pau Gasol, leads two Houston Rockets away from the Spaniard, and skips a pass back to Pau for a wide open mid-range shot. Two more points in Pau Gasol's journey to 15,000. One more assist in Kobe Bryant's 18th career triple double.
"Either the system is flawed or something's going on..."
Jordan Hill grabs an offensive rebound, his hustle out on the floor making him a gem for the Los Angeles Lakers who need every bit of productivity they can scrounge out of their bench, and finds Dwight Howard flashing through the key. He passes the ball into the hands of the superstar center and Howard leaps through the air for a Staples Center rocking dunk.
How's that for a process?
That breeze flowing through the room that you feel? That's the cool air the Lakers franchise acquired when they made the pointed decision to hire Mike D'Antoni to replace Mike Brown. The windows had been shut tightly on this Lakers team since what has felt like the first tip off of preseason, and finally it doesn't feel so stuffy in Staples Center. Inhale. Enjoy the fresh air. We love the game of basketball because it's beautiful, poetic, and fun to watch. There are many different ways to approach the game of basketball. Some philosophies have led teams to championships; dynasties even. Others have led teams to disarray and draft lotteries, hoping to find the Kevin Durant that will save their franchise. Coach D'Antoni has yet to make his debut as the head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers but his presence has certainly been felt. And, while it still remains to be seen just what this Lakers team may become under his guidance, the possibilities have begun to feel immense.
Perhaps that's why with the mere mention of "showtime" the good Dr. Jerry Buss was ready to put all of his chips in one can of Pringles. The Lakers were playing a disastrous style of basketball that felt far from a guarantee at a time when the only thing guaranteed was one season with the roster as constructed. Dwight Howard's free agency is still a key moment to capture for the storied franchise, and while they may have the titles and history to keep Dwight no matter the outcome of a singular season, they are in a battle against Father Time just as Kobe Bryant is as an individual.
So what do you do? Try another system hoping that the coach that was apathetically swept by the Dallas Mavericks the last go round is ready to take another shot at it? Pray that all these different shapes somehow fit into a blueprint after just removing those same shapes from a similar template? Or, do you go after the coach who desperately wants the job, is willing to hobble around on crutches as he still recovers from knee replacement surgery, and has the chops to bring the best out of not only each individual player, but the team as a whole?
Ask the Houston Rockets how they felt about trying to defend an onslaught of high screens and fluid ball movement from the Lakers star studded line-up. In the first quarter alone the Lakers sandbagged the Rockets for 40 points, ending with a full court hail mary inbound pass from Metta World Peace to Pau Gasol who may or may not have gotten away with offensive pass interference on the catch. There's something to be said about enjoying what you do for a living. Waking up each and every morning ready to get after another day of your career. A happy employee tends to be a productive employee and the Lakers finally seem to be playing with a level of enjoyment that is flat out fun to watch.
Kobe Bryant is playing inspired basketball. It's been an absolutely stunning start of the season for a man in the 17th year of his career and his 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists were all felt beyond the stat sheet. He let his scoring mentality get the best of him at times, but for the most part he has played within the flow of the game instead of forcing it to bend to his will. On the season Bryant is averaging 5.4 assists per game, not a career high (6.0 in the 2004-2005 campaign), but not a number to scoff at. His passing has been a key in the Lakers digging out of the 1-4 crater that claimed Mike Brown as a victim. He is simply doing everything right now, which has made it difficult for defenses to slow him down. Double him off of a screen and he'll hit the open man. Try to play him straight up and he'll drive to the rim. Fall back to protect the rim and he'll shoot an unchallenged shot which is nearly automatic for his lethal mid-range game. The Rockets had no answer for Kobe Bryant, even with James Harden to throw at him.
Harden, who was averaging 26.7 points per game going into the contest, felt like an after thought as the game progressed. His defense wasn't particularly effective as it has been in the past. His offense wasn't flowing, still finding 20 points but on 18 field goal attempts. Most NBA players would be perfectly content with 20 and 7 assists, but for a player that will need to rise and be the "marquee" franchise player for a team that has been searching for the spark of a new era since Yao Ming's departure, finding consistency in making an impact on the game will be a lesson Harden will learn over time. One game doesn't make or break a budding young superstar that has nowhere to go but up, but while Kobe Bryant is still fighting uphill to stake his claim as the best player in the league once again, he has shown why he still has a strong foothold on being the best shooting guard in the league. It may be James Harden in the future, but in the now? It still runs through Kobe.
The Lakers will be facing a tough stretch going forward with two back to back pairings, the first being against the Brooklyn Nets and at the Sacramento Kings, the other being at the Memphis Grizzlies and at the Dallas Mavericks, followed by two home games against the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets to close out the month of November. If there's one thing the Lakers should be thankful for as we enter the Thanksgiving holiday, it's this stretch of home games that has allowed the Lakers breathe again.
Another thing the Lakers, and their fans, should be thankful for? Pau Gasol.
No Laker has had to play with such scrutiny, while also constantly being trade fodder, the way that Pau has. Perhaps Andrew Bynum, however, he knew he was Jim Buss' protege and it would take a team moving a premium piece to ever send him out of Los Angeles (and, a team finally did. Patience is a virtue). Still, Pau Gasol has trucked along and remains one of the most skilled true big men in the league. His game has had to adapt since being divorced from the Triangle offense, but there he is, doing whatever he has to do to try and make it work for the home he loves so much in Los Angeles. Appreciate this special player. There may be big men who can score as well as he can, there may be "point forwards" who get a handful of assist per game, but there's only one Pau Gasol. Against the Rockets he became the 10th international player to reach the milestone of 15,000 points, a moment he will forever link back to his long time teammate Kobe Bryant as the pass came from #24. In the midst of new rumors circling around Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks Pau Gasol tacked on an accolade further validating a career that has helped shape the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers from the moment he put on a Lakers jersey.
A basketball game in the middle of November means very little on a micro scale, and every now and then it helps to take a step back and have a different perspective that exists beyond the box score and the singular game of basketball that was just played. The little details, at times, get in the way of the bigger picture. For a team that is solely concerned with the bigger picture this is a great time to take inventory on what's going on. And, when you look at the bigger picture, the outlook is increasingly bright for this Lakers squad. Dwight Howard is still being quoted as having his readiness in the 75%-80% range, yet game by game he seems to improve. Maybe it's just for a play or two, or even better, a quarter... but it's there. His block of Cole Aldrich in the 4th quarter was masterfully timed, but the fact that he then ran down the court in the fast break and finished the play with a dunk off of a nice pass from Darius Morris was the type of play that makes Dwight Howard, Dwight Howard. The dominant big man that the Lakers franchise has always loved is getting closer day by day. He isn't Wilt, Kareem, or Shaq; he is Dwight, which isn't necessarily a bad thing with a game of basketball that is ever evolving. Every dunk is a reminder of why this is a roster that needs to be set free, not confined to harsh principles and sets. Howard had 28 points on 11-18 shooting, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks while being at most 80% of his maximum capacity. Watch out, NBA.
The Lakers were thrilling against the Houston Rockets, and this is without one of the greatest play-makers of modern basketball, Steve Nash. Yet another reason to be excited about the direction of the Lakers. Sooner or later Nash will take the floor with this Lakers squad and he will be fully empowered to make the crowd go wild with his ability to do the unthinkable with the basketball in his hands. In the meantime, though, Darius Morris continues to improve. Even in small increments, game by game the 2nd year player looks like he is primed to take a huge leap forward from where he was even in the preseason. At this point the only question that remains in regards to Morris seems to be if he has earned the 2nd slot in the point guard depth chart in front of Steve Blake and Chris Duhon. His defense and athleticism alone warrant the debate, but his flashes of being a play-maker have many wondering if this Michigan Wolverine can be the real deal. The coaching staff will have to take a long look at their roster and what they want to do with it once both Steves are healthy. If Morris continues this level of play sending him to the back of the bench to cheer alongside Robert Sacre could be detrimental to the development he has shown in this brief stint. A solid 12 points, 5 assist effort from Darius Morris tonight, while he also did a great job of limiting Jeremy Lin. Lin did end the night with 10 assists, but much of that can be attributed to the Lakers defense having their own internal issues rotating. Despite the assist numbers, Lin had a terrible night from the field at 2-9 for 5 points. Morris hounded him, similarly to the job he did against Tony Parker a few night ago. As he continues to gather playing time, he will find his identity as a professional basketball player. It's easy to forget how great the talent is in the league, and how much of an adjustment it is from the collegiate level to the pros.
This was a solid win over a Houston Rockets team that has their own chemistry to sort out. The Lakers flat out had superior talent on the floor, and talent wins games. This is the Lakers team that should have been there from the moment they hit the floor together as a starting five, but now they're doing it with their third string point guard. Sitting at a .500 record, the true test comes to close the month out with a tough schedule. The next two weeks will be very telling for this roster. Can Darius Morris put a stranglehold on his position as the backup point guard? Is Kobe Bryant going to continue this torrid pace? Will Dwight Howard's return to even 90% be close on the horizon? How much longer will Steve Nash need till he can get back on the basketball court? Once Mike D'Antoni gets his hands on this roster, will the 110-115 threshold become a 120 point mark (the Lakers broke 110 points at 7:08 in the 4th quarter)? The final score for the night, 119-108, Lakers victory.
So many questions with even fewer answers. For now, though, enjoy that breeze. Inhale; take a long, deep breath. We all deserve it. But, hold it in till these Lakers take your breath away. Then, maybe we can all understand why the mere whisper of "showtime" has led them in this direction. The journey to find out if it was the right choice has only just begun.
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- Be sure to check out how The Dream Shake feels about their Houston Rockets after the loss.