A new year is coming for the Los Angeles Lakers. 2012 was a remarkable year for the franchise if only considering the off-season that Mitch Kupchak and the front office put together, but the actual play on the hardwood has been far from spectacular. It's been a memorable year, though, regardless of being pushed 7 games by the Denver Nuggets only to be knocked out by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and struggling out of the gates in their 2012-2013 season despite reloading the roster. What the future holds for the Lakers is still unclear; a blurry picture in the distance distorted between the reality of an old roster that is still learning how to play together, and the hopes and expectations of a fan base that has sipped from the goblet of greatness enough to permanently have remnants that taste on the tip of their tongue and roof of their mouth.
Ending the year with a win was important for this Lakers team though. After having their 5 game winning streak snapped over the knee of Kenneth Faried in Denver against the Nuggets, bouncing back to inject adrenaline back into the momentum they laid to rest was crucial to prove that they were in fact making progress as a team. This wasn't just a win though, this was a statement. We're here now.
The Los Angeles Lakers are now 3-1 since the return of Steve Nash, the point guard who was supposed to deliver salvation to the Lakers when he was shot into the sky over Staples Center on July 4th. With each game that passes Nash shows why there's still reason to hope. That there's stlll reason to believe in a Lakers team that is too often on the wrong side of .500. Mike D'Antoni was able to monitor Nash's minutes against the Trail Blazers, but even in the 26 minutes of time he spent in the driver's seat, his impact was felt. The control he plays with on the basketball court is supernatural. His passing ability? It was fun to hypothesize what it would mean for the purple and gold, but actually seeing it in action blows any 1500 word article away detailing what the man can do on the court. 10 assists last night for Steve Nash along with 6 points.
Before we move on from Nash, though, of those 10 assists he had 7 of them were to the man so many said couldn't play away from the ball. The man that so many said couldn't exist with a ball dominant point guard. Yes, 7 of the 10 Nash dimes went into the hands of Kobe Bryant. Nash hit him no matter where he was. Whether it was in transition or in a half court set, Steve Nash set Kobe up perfectly. Most notable in those 7 assists to Kobe, though, was a beautiful bounce pass in transition to Kobe who was cutting baseline for an easy layup. Simply beautiful.
Yes, the Lakers were rolling against the Trail Blazers. After spending the majority of their new season looking out of sorts and disinterested, seeing the Lakers revving up their engine was a sight to behold. The difference that two weeks, and adding Steve Nash and Pau Gasol back into the mix can make, is shocking even if it was expected. Gasol isn't necessarily reinventing himself, but refining himself. He has always been a phenomenal passer and now it's becoming a go-to for the Lakers. His decision making partnered with his passing ability net the Lakers easy points and allows the Lakers to work off-ball. Another 5 assist night from Pau, who also had 15 points (including 2 three-pointers) and 9 rebounds. Pau may never be the dominant force in the post that he once was again on a consistent basis but he does so much right on the court. His dreamshake in the 4th quarter was beautiful, and swift, reminder that he's still a player with a bag of tricks in the post that few have.
It's a different battle when Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are playing on the court. The two combined for 15 assists, and as a whole the Lakers had 29 assists on 40 made field goals. Adding two playmakers in in the starting lineup makes a difference. Shocking. More shocking is that the Lakers had 23 fast break points, mostly orchestrated by Steve Nash in transition.
Dwight Howard did what he had to do after the apathetic showing in Denver; he played with urgency as he dominated. Going 7-13 from both the field and the free throw line, Dwight compiled 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. Defensively he was a monster as he helped stifle the Blazer's points in the paint to only 38 total (the Lakers, in contrast, had 58 points in the paint). He was active against Portland, and his 6 offensive rebounds are proof positive of this. There are still more layups than dunks, something the Dwight of old would reverse, but as long as it's effective that's perfectly fine. He finished plenty of layups while absorbing contact and shot over 50% from the line. When Portland opted to hack Howard and send him to the line he responded in the best way possible; he drained all four free throws and put an end to the fouling.
And of course, there's Kobe Bryant. His 30 point streak has ended, but for all the right reasons. Playing only 30 minutes, Kobe Bryant spent the night taking feeds from Nash and finishing around the rim as he's done so exquisitely this season. His final point tally was 27 points on 9-18 shooting, but he also had 4 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals. He pushed the tempo in transition and even tossed up a huge lob to Darius Morris for a dunk that both players were jacked up about as they backed up to play defense after the play. There isn't much more to say about Kobe that hasn't been said; his basketball I.Q. and talent are a joy to watch on a nightly basis. This team is just now beginning to mesh and nothing points to this more than the easy looks Kobe is getting within the offense.
Whether or not Darius Morris is the answer as the starting shooting guard, last night he made strives to show that he certainly belongs in the rotation. His individual defense on Damian Lillard was impressive as he held Lillard to 4-17 shooting. The bigs behind Morris cleaned up any mess that got past him, but for the most part Lillard spent the night trying to shake Morris off of him. He also finished around the rim well and looked like he was in control of his body as he went up for perhaps the first time this season. If Morris can continue to be a disruptive force on defense and not obliterate the offense (is that too much to ask for?) his contributions this year can be critical. With the league's depth in talent at the point guard position thicker than ever (see: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Damian Lillard, and Michael Conley. That's just the Western Conference and teams at .500 or above.) being able to mask Steve Nash's individual deficiencies by plugging Morris in as a defensive specialist can be a step in the right direction for the Lakers' defense. Still, Morris needs to prove he can maintain this kind of effort. It was one game, but one good game, and that will help build confidence and define his role within the team. Vital for a young player trying to find his way as a professional.
The bench is starting to come together and define itself as well. With Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, and Jordan Hill now playing significant minutes the bench is as formidable as it has been for years. Mike D'Antoni has loosed up the leash around Jordan Hill and has given him an increased minute load. With it, Jordan Hill had 8 points and 8 rebounds in the 24 minutes he played. Hill's effort around the glass is a breath of fresh air off the bench, perhaps only matched by the overall hustle of Jodie Meeks. The game of Jodie Meeks could be summed up with one play in the 4th quarter. He was blocked twice but collected both rebounds, then dove to the floor to recover the ball, then passed it to Darius Morris, THEN spotted up in the corner to drain the three. Phenomenal. Metta World Peace has accepted his role coming off the bench and reinforcing the reserves. He continues his bullying of defenses with his quickness and hustle and net himself 6 points along with 3 rebounds and 3 assists. When he has a mismatch he quickly identifies it and attacks the paint.
The Trail Blazers couldn't get anything going against a Lakers team that is starting to play up to their potential. With only LaMarcus Aldridge having a good night (26 points on 12-17 shooting) the Blazers were only able to put together 39 second half points. Those came mostly in the 4th quarter as the Lakers played Devin Ebanks, Robert Sacre, and Earl Clark for the final five minutes. Garbage time is rare, and valuable, for the Lakers.
With a new year upon them the Lakers still have limitless possibilities. Yes, the Blazers aren't the Thunder, or any other top billed team, but beating up on average teams is what great teams do with ease. Consistently. The dots are starting to connect, the picture is beginning to come into focus, but there's still plenty of work to be done. Now on even ground at .500, the Lakers next play on New Year's Day against the Philadelphia 76ers. Consider it a fresh slate, Lakers, and make your resolutions for the new year to build upon games like the one you just put on against the Trail Blazers. Final score Friday night; 104-87
New year, new Lakers, renewed hope.
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