Beast or Burden: Back on Track

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

In a shellacking of the hapless Detroit Pistons, the Lakers demonstrated the kind of decisive performance commensurate with the team's talent level and got a desperately needed win.

We will know very soon whether this win was simply the dismantling of what appears to be a very, very bad team in the Detroit Pistons, but at least for a night, the Lakers looked as we expected them to look out of the gate. The coaching staff simplified the offense and much of the sets, allowing everyone on the floor to get into a much more consistent rhythm on both ends. The turnovers dropped as the Lakers focused on a simple gameplan of trying to feed the post at every opportunity and in general, they played solid inside-out ball without major mistakes. The better flow on offense also contributed to a stronger defensive effort, as the Lakers were actively forcing turnovers (!), a bete noire of the defense last year, and forcing the Pistons into bad shots from outside. Pick-and-rolls were being disrupted and penetration actively deterred by the smalls and bigs alike. Again, a lot of this has to be taken with a grain of salt given the quality of the opponent -- the Pistons' starters, a horrific unit by all accounts with the exception of Greg Monroe, shot 28% from the field -- but you also can't blame the Lakers for performing well against the opponent in front of them.

Whether this kind of effort and focus will carry into Wednesday's game against a far tougher opponent in Utah is another matter, but it shows what the Lakers can do when you fix the issues that led to their defeat in the first three games. The Princeton offense is a hard system to learn, so make the reads easier and run basic things that most teams won't be able to counter because the Lakers' talent level is ridiculously high. We can all accept that the team is a work in progress, but you have to be able to put together plays on the floor that win you games in the meantime and the coaching staff responded to that need.

Beast

  • Steve Blake -- Show of hands for anyone who thought that Blake was capable of this kind of play while filling in for Steve Nash? Everyone who said "yes" is either lying through their teeth or is Kristen Blake, although who knows if even she thought Steve could pull this off. As has been the case in this very young season, Blake simply looks at home in the Princeton, controlling the offense and not making significant mistakes in the process. Perhaps most shocking has been his sudden ability to penetrate into the lane off the pick-and-roll, and while he still isn't any threat to score, it opens the floor up for other opportunities. Last night was also a virtuoso defensive effort for Blake, who got five steals by playing the passing lanes and through sheer hustle; his counterpart in Brandon Knight finished the night with two points on 1-8 shooting and five turnovers. He's not gambling either, using his length well to deter ballhandlers on penetration and otherwise cranking out a performance almost none of us believed he had in him.
  • Kobe Bryant -- To illustrate how outrageously good Kobe has been on offense, he currently has a 71.0 TS%, which is the same percentage Tyson Chandler got last year scoring on putbacks and as a roll man. The Pistons game was a textbook case in how Kobe can control the floor without scoring a whole lot, delivering exquisite passes on penetration and for the most part, only shooting within the flow of the offense. Kobe also hit a number of shots on catch-and-shoot opportunities, and if he has gotten around into believing that he can get points easily that way, the entire league should quake in terror. After a year of trying to split defenders with a gimpy handle, Kobe's dribbling ability also appears to have been restored, as have his hops, something we have seen in a variety of acrobatic finishes around the rim. He can't conceivably keep up this insane efficiency, but the manner in which he has gone about his business on offense has been incredibly endearing.
  • Dwight Howard -- We still don't think Dwight is 100%, but he could have fooled us last night, obliterating basically everyone who tried to stop him on the interior. And we keep on harping on about this, but anyone believing that he doesn't possess finesse and skill should look at how he went around Andre Drummond, one of the few players in the league who can stand up to Dwight's overwhelming physicality, like he wasn't there in the post. Defense remains the part of his game not yet up to par, although his domination of a very good offensive player in Greg Monroe showed that even a limited Dwight can have a big impact on that end. The Lakers were probably a little too enthusiastic about trying to dump the ball into the post, but with Dwight producing as he is, you would be hard pressed to find a reason not to.
  • Metta World Peace -- Where did this MWP come from? He finally looked under control, scoring against a respectable defender in Tayshaun Prince in the post and nailing his shots from outside. He also had the pass of the night, an absolute beauty of a bounce pass to a cutting Kobe who took it straight to the rim. Out of anyone on the team, he looked the most rejuvenated by the simpler scheme and that might be a solution for his long-term success. Minimize the number of reads he has to make and he will do much better, especially in the turnover department. Thankfully, he also did not decline the easiest read of all in dumping the ball to Dwight, something he inexplicably decided not to do against the Clippers.
  • Jordan Hill -- Is there any doubt that Hill is the Lakers' best reserve? His nose for the ball on rebounds remains superb, as he claimed seven boards to tie Howard for the team lead despite playing thirteen fewer minutes. In lieu of that midrange jumper he seemingly fell in love with during the preseason -- although it should be said that it is perfectly fine for him to set up there once or twice a game to keep the defense honest -- he is staying near the rim and playing to his strengths. On that note, Hill definitely looks like the least comfortable of the Lakers' primary frontcourt players in the high post, which makes sense given his limited court vision and primary utility on offense. He did have a year and a half of tutelage under Rick Adelman in Houston to get used to the Princeton offense, so one would hope he scrounges up some of that experience in the future.
  • Honorable mention goes to Darius Morris, who again gave a performance that one would simply not expect given his poor preseason showing and previous problems with the pro game. He still looks somewhat uncomfortable as the primary ballhandler and his decisiveness coming off a pick or on penetration remains a problem, but altogether, he was a serviceable reserve against the Pistons. One thing to look for is whether the coaching staff uses him with Blake or Kobe, as Morris' height allows him to cover bigger guards and all the stories about his improved three-point accuracy are apparently well-founded.

Burden

  • Antawn Jamison -- The key problem with Jamison beyond his poor play is that he is the person keeping Jodie Meeks, who we thought could give the Lakers' offense a boost with his long-range shooting, nailed to the bench. The coaching staff seems determined to keep Dwight or Pau at center at all times, which puts Hill at the four and pushes Jamison to the three. This leads to a minute crunch at the wing and it is increasingly hard to justify this given that Jamison has been fairly awful whichever forward position he occupies. He does make good reads within the Princeton, not hard to explain given that he has the most experience with Eddie Jordan out of anyone on the team, but he disappears on offense too often. We knew that he was misplaced as a spot-up shooter, but he hasn't rectified this by attacking the rim or being more active on cuts and similar. If he isn't producing on offense, there really isn't a lot of reason to keep on the floor given his absolutely miserable defense, so this needs to change if he wants to keep a rotation spot.
  • Devin Ebanks -- Jamison keeping Meeks out of the rotation is an issue that has been further aggravated by Ebanks' poor play. We thought in preseason that Ebanks' long range shooting had come around enough for him to get consistent minutes on the wing, but performances like last night's can't help his chances of that continuing. He has the athleticism and defensive ability to be a useful rotation player, but the Lakers can't play an offensive zero either. Hopefully he turns this around quickly, or Meeks might start getting minutes at his expense rather than Jamison's.
  • Mike Brown -- Come on, man. You don't need to put in the starters with a twenty point lead. Let the bench take its lumps. Even just Dwight, who needs to get back in game shape and is the youngest of the Laker starters, would have been justifiable, but more minutes for Kobe and Pau is just unconscionable. Brown deserves props for making the necessary schematic changes for the Lakers to look better on both ends, but his decision to put the starters back in left quite a poor taste in our mouths.
  • (Dis)honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol, who didn't have the best shooting night although he was solid in other phases. His midrange shot has deserted him in some instances, and while the Lakers made a more concerted effort to get him touches near the rim, he wasn't as effective as we want him to be. His defense noticeably perked up against Detroit, however, and this correlates with the solid effort he had limiting Blake Griffin two games ago.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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