A four-game road trip in the midst of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol being out with injuries wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered for the Lakers. Cleveland was ready to welcome Kyrie Irving back, the New York Knicks are on fire like an Alicia Keys song, the Washington Wizards are... the Washington Wizards, and the 76ers stood as the only team over .500 involved in the Dwight Howard trade. With the road trip complete, and a 2-2 split, the Lakers return home to play the Charlotte Bobcats Tuesday night and will happily add Pau Gasol back into the fold. Fittingly, over this stretch on the road the Lakers overall outscored their opponents, 414-410. Capped off with Sunday evenings 111-98 victory of the 76ers.
They're still only 11-14 and have more issues than answers, but the Lakers made progress on this road trip overall by the time it was all said and done. Last night in Philadelphia, the Lakers did what Lakers teams do: they rode Kobe Bryant. Kobe remains one of the games sublime scorers and bounced back from an inefficient game in Washington with another classic in Philly. 34 points on 12-21 shooting, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, and these two moves (hat-tip to Forum Blue & Gold for that) that embody Kobe Bryant the scoring machine. His post-game quotes all sounded like a man who knows his time is near, multiple times referencing how this may have been one of the last two times he will play in his hometown on Philadelphia.
Times have certainly changed for Kobe and Philly. The cheers at this point outweigh the boos and heckling as the Philadelphia product made love on the court. It was a throwback night; Bryant scoring in any fashion of ways and the Lakers rolling to one of the few "easy" victories they've seen this season. The Sixers were without their leading scorer, Jrue Holiday, and have yet to see what Andrew Bynum is capable of while he isn't busily having his growth "stunted" by Kobe Bryant (or so Bynum says). Nick Young stepped up for Philadelphia, though, with a 30 point night on 12-23. The rest of the 76ers contributed, particularly Evan Turner who started out the game looking like he was back at Ohio State and dominating (16 points, 6-16), and Thaddeus Young who was driving to the rim at will (14 points, 7-10). Without Jrue, their floor and scoring leader, the Sixers lacked the necessary potency for a team that was clicking.
Defensively the Sixers couldn't slow down Los Angeles. Dwight Howard was key in the Lakers finding a rhythm as he passed out of the post to the sudden bevy of shooters enlisted by the Lakers. Chris Duhon, Jodie Meeks, and Darius Morris all benefited from Howard's passing out of the paint and the Sixers never put a stop to this glaring issue. Once they pulled Kwame Brown out of the game in favor of Spencer Hawes the dynamic in the post changed as they couldn't cover Howard with one body and sent doubles at him. This is just one aspect of basketball in which Dwight outshines Bynum: recognizing double teams and passing out of them. Against the Sixers it paid off as the Lakers were taking advantage of most of their opportunities. Dwight spent the night dominating defensively and put together a solid game. 17 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, 3 steals. That's a productive night.
It's been a difficult stretch for Los Angeles to start the season. It's tired and repeated but with injuries to key personnel it's not out of the realm of normalcy that the Lakers would struggle as they adjust to new personnel and an even newer coach and philosophy. Playing Darius Morris (who had a career night, 15 points, 5-8), Chris Duhon (14 points, 5-11), Robert Sacre (only 1 rebound in his 6 minutes of playing time, but some solid work on the defensive end overall), and Devin Ebanks (0 points, 0-4 shooting) extensive minutes that matter has certainly made things harder than they need to be with a healthy roster on the Lakers. This is where the gamble of assembling a top-heavy team comes into play. Though, few could have envisioned the injuries piling up as immediate as they did. Yet, it's stretches like this that will be looked back on as crucial once it's all said and done. Whether crucial in a negative, or positive, light remains to be seen, but this has given Mike D'Antoni an opportunity to flip a few stones on the roster and has been a period in the season for the team to grow together and fight out of the adversity together. A chance to uncover an identity in which they've lacked all season.
One of the few constants this roster has had over the last few years is the lack of point guard play. Whether it was Derek "My Foot's On the Line" Fisher, Ramon Sessions, or Steve Blake the Lakers have desperately needed a point guard or two to give them that extra oomph. With both Blake and Nash out an extended period Chris Duhon and Darius Morris have gotten time to build a repertoire with their fellow teammates, and a chance to show Mike D'Antoni what he has to work with once Nash returns and Blake continues to recover from abdominal surgery. Last night was a great example of two players playing beyond 3rd string and 4th string expectations. Combined, the point guard duo had 29 points on 10-19 shooting and 6 assists. When the time comes D'Antoni will have to decide on which point guard will ultimately be the backup. D'Antoni will have had plenty of time to work with both, and perhaps more importantly both players will have had the time and opportunity to become comfortable in the X's and O's being preached.
Meanwhile, Devin Ebanks has also received an extended look, starting at power forward in the last two games while Pau Gasol was wrapping up his rest and rehab. The results have been mixed, as has always been the case with Ebanks, but far too often he has absolutely no impact on the game aside from missing jumpers and hard-forcing the Lakers into transition (where they aren't very good). It's important for Mike D'Antoni to know what he does, and doesn't, have to work with on this roster. Without training camp and preseason to tinker the injuries the team has faced have forced the issue for D'Antoni to look at the talent on the 8, 9, 10, and 11 guys on the roster. Should he find something worthwhile, fantastic. If not? Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill will all be back to fill out those slots (health willing).
Whether one of these low-tier depth chart players contributes to a greater cause isn't projectable, but with a roster so heavily reliant on four or five guys staying healthy, having the options and familiarity certainly helps the cause. This is a team that is just slowly beginning to take form. Much more a team than last seasons incarnation which severely lacked talent outside of Gasol, Bynum, and Bryant. While it's still on a night by night basis, there are positives to extract from these games. Jodie Meeks has been delightful off the bench. His mix of effort and sharpshooting make him a joy to watch. Even on a night where he shot 4-10 for 12 points Meeks was steadily bringing his full effort on the floor. Defensively he might be the best player on the perimeter aside from Metta World Peace. He's disruptive in transition and actually makes the effort to get back full speed more often than not, he plays the passing lanes well, and he hustles. 4 steals for Meeks to match his made field goals. Only going 2-8 from deep feels like anomaly. Yes, terrible outside shooting for a Laker player seems irregular. The Mayans may have been right after all.
24 points over the last 6 games, ZERO points in the last two. Yes, I'm talking about Antawn Jamison. He who looked like a beater of benches has gotten himself into a funk. It happens; his role has been fluctuating going from off the bench, to starting, to sixth man type minutes, back to starting, then back to the bench for limited minutes. He has taken only 6 field goals and made just 1 of those in the last three games and has lost the traction he had prior to this downward trending stretch. In the last two games, combined, he's played 19:28. With Pau Gasol returning to the lineup Tuesday night perhaps Antawn Jamison can return to his sixth man role and get back into his rhythm which was beginning to become a huge net positive for the team.
Then there's Metta World Peace. Perhaps saving the best for last here, as Metta was amazing to watch. He plays the game of basketball with a sense of urgency that few Lakers have displayed over the better part of the last 10 years. His defensive work is stellar; rotating well and continuing to use his Mayweather hands to create steals (4 on the night, to go with Meeks' 4. 8 steals between the two, along with another 3 from Dwight. 11 STEALS! WHAT IS THIS LAKERS TEAM?). Metta is a bully around the rim, using his strength and nose for the ball he pushed the 76ers around for a career high 16 rebounds, 5 of which were off the offensive glass. He's shooting, he's driving, he's playing great minutes for the Lakers.
Yes, the Lakers have stumbled over their own feet to start the season. Without Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and with a coaching change it was to be fated this way. But there's starting to be a trend towards the positive when looking at the role players around the lead players for the purple and gold. Surely the talents of the big four, Howard, Nash, Gasol, and Bryant, would be enough to make noise in the playoffs. But these role players, guys like Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison, are just as important. I've referenced it before, but simply look at any championship team in the past. In fact, look at the 2009 NBA playoffs, where unlikely hero Trevor Ariza shot the ball out of his mind and was the defensive disruptor for the team. Derek Fisher stepped up and hit critical shots. Andrew Bynum played as a body to throw at Dwight Howard and worked together with Pau Gasol to slow down the leviathan. But the one thing that was the overarching truth then, and will remain so till the end?
The Lakers rise and fall with Kobe Bryant. In Philadelphia, his hometown, Kobe put on the razzle-dazzle for Philly. As Kobe lifted the Lakers his teammates held up their end of the deal, making sure this wasn't another wasted performance. Forcing these role players into starting responsibilities and extended minutes through the injuries has exposed them for what they are: role players. In return, however, Mike D'Antoni has had a chance to comb through what options he has at his disposal as they become comfortable playing together. The 76ers were Duhoned, Morrised, Meeksed, and World Peaced by the Lakers as Kobe Bryant threw the heavy hitting blows to knock them out. Next up, the Charlotte Bobcats.
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- Don't forget, Liberty Ballers has all Philly everything. Surely they have plenty to say about Andrew Bynum's controversial statements last night.
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