On a night on which we were stoked for the glorious return of Steve Nash and the amazing concept of good point guard play, the basketball gods conspired to spoil his debut in a Lakers uniform under Mike D'Antoni in every way imaginable. Three of the Lakers' top four players chose to either be awful or sit on the bench for most of the game due to foul trouble, a noted Lakers killer in Jarrett Jack went nova, the referees were beyond terrible, and the Lakers turned in a putrid second and third quarter on the way to what appeared to be a somewhat discouraging defeat. Nash was supposed to be the final ingredient to help fix the Lakers' chemistry issues and provide a stabilizing presence in a system that has not agreed with everyone. The narrative would have then switched to it being unreasonable to expect him to fix everything in his first game back, and we would have been left with more of the inevitable "It's a process" cliches.
Not this game, as the Lakers' bench stepped up in a big way to make up for the play of the starters, what had been a poor defense tightened the screws down the stretch, and this Lakers team, as has been the case quite a bit this year, displayed a surprising amount of grit despite a big deficit. One can hardly attribute all of this to Nash, but the difference he makes is definitely palpable. Lost in the Kobe Bryant chuck frenzy was that he deferred for a good portion of crunch time and allowed Nash to pick apart a Warriors defense that had no answer for him on the roll or setting great back picks (!) to free up cutters and shooters. The mere fact that this happened is arguably more important than the result of the game itself. The patented Kobe iso to finish regulation notwithstanding, you can probably count the point guards he would take a step back for on one hand.
This points to the culture change that Nash engenders by simply being present. Beyond Nash's own play, one of the prevalent themes about his time in Phoenix was that he simply makes the game fun to play. Passing becomes contagious -- how about Dwight Howard on the roll hitting Metta World Peace in the corner down the stretch despite moving a million miles an hour? -- and people buy into the system as a result. The Lakers were tripping over themselves to praise Nash in the locker room last night and that wasn't just obligatory plaudits for a guy coming back from injury. Half the league wanted to play with Nash and under D'Antoni in Phoenix a few years ago not only because you operate in an equal opportunity offense with an all-time point guard setting you up, but since it also is an enjoyable, low pressure way to play basketball. That joy in the Lakers' play is something we haven't seen on a consistent basis since the '08-'09 season and it certainly is what we expected when we signed Nash this past summer.
- Steve Nash -- It is a testament both to Nash's skill and how much this system fits him like a glove that he can walk into a game after a two month absence and look like the most comfortable guy on the floor. He simply makes it look effortless as it he probes off a pick and either shoots seamlessly off the dribble or hits his roll man with a flawless bounce pass. Now, all was not peachy, as the Lakers let Nash get trapped on the baseline too often and both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard need to realize that you have to roll hard at the rim with Nash running the show. But those are chemistry concerns that will get worked out with time and that Nash was such a big difference maker in his first contest back has to be really encouraging. D'Antoni's attempt to hide Nash on defense against Klay Thompson got mixed results, but Nash competes at the very least, so you can find ways to account for him.
- Metta World Peace -- Whatever forward position he is playing at, MWP was downright dominant last night, as he took his man off the dribble, spun around him in the post, and nailed shots from outside. His dribbling ability in particular is valuable at the four and you can see the attraction for D'Antoni as he worked on David Lee and others. So long as MWP can cover the opposing four, which he did fairly well save for some cases in which Lee managed to get the ball in the deep post, this arrangement can work out very well since he meets the ideal requirements for what D'Antoni needs from his four men. It does add to the minute crunch in the frontcourt, but this is a good problem to have.
- Jordan Hill -- This is especially so because Hill had a fantastic game covering for Howard's foul trouble, displaying his usual supreme effort on the offensive boards and surprising consistency on long jumpers. Time and time again, he filled the open space on the floor and nailed the open shot from out to twenty feet. Needless to say, that kills a lot of the argument for him not playing considering the other things he does on the court, but it is important that he is hitting those shots consistently, especially with Nash in the lineup. His help and pick-and-roll defense continues to be better than his straight-up post defense, as he was overpowered a few times in the low post, but he still does a solid job overall.
- Jodie Meeks -- With Nash back, Meeks' continuing notion that there is some value to him putting the ball on the floor is just baffling, as his three turnovers can attest to. There's simply a tremendous disparity between the good he does as a spot-up shooter and floor spacer and his ability to drive and finish at the rim. In fact, it is hard to remember the possessions in which he doesn't turn the ball over on his drives, if such a thing is even possible. He either gets the ball stripped, loses it out of bounds, or throws up an easily blocked attempt at the rim. It only takes the smallest smidgen of pressure for any of the aforementioned things to happen, which makes it a great thing for his long-term prospects that he is a solid shooter. On the other end, Meeks did a decent job covering Stephen Curry so Nash didn't have to take the assignment and while he doesn't traverse screens that well, he at least tries to fight through them.
- Dwight Howard -- On one hand, the refs gave Dwight the short stick and then some. Most of his fouls were ticky tack calls while he got hammered on the other end to no effect. It is true that Dwight gets judged similarly to Shaq in his prime in that the refs allow defenses to inflict enormous amounts of punishment on a physically dominant player, but the lack of calls on his rolls to the rim were pretty blatant. The flip side is that he made some truly stupid fouls on defense, his fifth foul at the start of the fourth quarter in particular. He belongs on the top side of this column, however, since his defense in the fourth quarter and overtime sustained the Lakers' comeback effort and reduced the Golden State offense to a lot of standing around and long jumpers. The Lakers also started to do a better job of getting him the ball in the low post, and as previously mentioned, Dwight made some really solid passes as a roll man on the pick-and-roll. It can't be emphasized too much how hard it is to read the defense while moving at the speed Dwight does on the roll, and he not only did so, but made the correct pass as well. It only enhances the value of a Nash/Howard pick-and-roll, which we can finally see in its full capacity.
- Honorable mention to Chris Duhon, who accepted his backup role with gusto and notched a shocking seven dimes in only twelve minutes. As Blake noted the other day, who ends up with the backup point guard minutes is a big question and it mostly comes down to the one who can prevent the offensive flow from imploding the moment Nash leaves the floor. For his part, Duhon showed that this is something within his ability, and while his defensive issues are problematic, he is definitely miles ahead of the other options for his spot, at least until Steve Blake returns.
- Kobe Bryant -- As with Dwight, Kobe didn't get a whole lot of love from the refs this game. It is truly inexplicable that a player of his ability can take fourteen shots at the rim and get no free throws and the Warriors don't have awesome defensive stalwarts in Festus Ezeli and David Lee to have an excuse in this regard. This noted, it doesn't excuse Kobe for shooting even more to express his discontent at the refs and for his own shot not going in. His line was downright Iversonian by the end of the game and that's not a compliment. Down the stretch, he improved a bit, although it was mostly that his jumpers started to find the bottom of the net. This is the feeling out period that he and Nash have to go through as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James did two years ago, and no one doubts that the two can co-exist in the same backcourt, but it will take time for the two to acclimate to one another, especially given the role Kobe has occupied the past few weeks. On another note, Kobe's defense was about as miserable as always. Don't know why standing five feet closer to his man and not moving is any less taxing than doing the same while standing in the paint.
- Pau Gasol -- For a good portion of the game, Pau looked like he couldn't be bothered to stay on the court, as some half-hearted effort on offense and so-so defense all combined to produce a lackluster performance. As with the rest of the Lakers' stars, he did damage down the stretch, his contribution being some pinpoint passing from the high post via a lot of horns sets. Credit D'Antoni for making an adjustment in that regard -- HORNS are pretty different from the standard high pick-and-roll he prefers from Nash -- to integrate Pau and this definitely is a role he can succeed in. At the same time, he has to be more engaged from start to finish and the lazy turnovers are unacceptable.
- Darius Morris -- D'Antoni pulled the plug on the Morris at the two experiment pretty quickly, but Morris did a decent job on Curry in his short time on the court and had an impact in general defensively. His problem was his inability to be effective as a spot-up shooter and his wayward drives to the rim, something that can't happen as a starter alongside the Lakers' other four stars. Even more so than usual, Morris has to defer and stay within his skill level in that context: in other words, he needs to be a role player. He can stick in the rotation as a defensive specialist, but he has to provide value on offense to earn more than spot minutes.