Amongst the turmoil of the season and just after a poor effort in the Denver game, the Lakers' performance on Friday was a return to form we came accustomed to during their heyday: the almost routine dismantling of a team lower on the basketball totem pole in a contest that was never in doubt. From the beginning of the game, Steve Nash directed the tempo and flow as he usually does and Portland offered little resistance to the Lakers' offensive onslaught. While some superb shooting from LaMarcus Aldridge kept the game close -- seriously, who else hits fadeaway jumpers over Dwight Howard's outstretched arm? -- the Lakers ultimately broke the game open and even managed to get the home crowd tacos before they left, something that stands to be a rarer occurrence in the Mike D'Antoni era. It is a scenario that has played out time and time again over the past few years and is only really notable as a point of comparison against how poorly the rest of the season has gone.
Indeed, taking a moment to reflect on the Lakers' second game of the year reveals the enormous magnitude of the changes that have come in Laker Land. Last we saw the Blazers, this team featured Nash being muzzled by a poorly implemented Princeton offense, Kobe Bryant turning the ball over every other possession, and Mike Brown doing Mike Brown things such as playing Antawn Jamison at the three and benching Jodie Meeks for no real reason at all. It was a team in stark disarray with no belief in the system the coach was espousing or chemistry between the big pieces that had been thrown together in the offseason. Fast forward two months and we have practically the opposite of all those things taking place, with the biggest change being that the team finally seems to be settling on a common identity that they have confidence in. Even if the road towards reclaiming the same contender status the team had prior to the year is still a long one, the progress the team has made from that positively dismal October performance, all of the upheaval caused by coaching changes and injury problems taken into account, has to be endearing.
- Kobe Bryant -- Of course, the main thing keeping the team afloat in that period was Kobe becoming the insanely efficient offensive weapon we thought he could be alongside the team's other stars, something made all the more impressive by Kobe's ability to do so without all of them healthy. Of the Lakers' top four, Kobe's adjustment into a system in which he would not handle the ball all the time and play with a bona fide elite point guard in Nash was viewed as one of the team's biggest obstacles they had to solve during the year. A significant portion of the season would essentially serve as a transition period for Nash and Kobe to figure out their respective roles. Well, you could have thrown that concern out of the window against Portland, as Nash found Kobe again and again on the baseline and elsewhere on his way to the rim in the halfcourt or semi-transition. Kobe has stayed true to his words that he would welcome someone managing the offense, as with the exception of his massive chuck fest against Golden State, he has more or less handed the keys of the offense to Nash without major complaint. On another note, Kobe finally brought the goods defensively, as he played solid defense against Damian Lillard and his usually lazy gambling was more focused and impactful.
- Steve Nash -- This night didn't match the insane efficiency Nash has put up in the previous contests, but from the opening tip-off, his utter control of the game was evident. He picked apart Portland's defense, got everyone going, and the rest of the game was history at that point. As indicated out above, the sheer haste with which he and Kobe have found a way to gain a good deal of synergy in this system despite precious little time sharing the court together is astonishing, and it is a tribute to their knowledge of the game and compatible skill sets. Nash got a break on this game on the defensive end, as Spanish rookie Victor Claver has been awful this year and was never able to take advantage of the height disparity, and Lillard was unable to repeat his October performance that derailed the Lakers' season.
- Pau Gasol -- Uh, those concerns about Pau fitting into D'Antoni's offense? Those are evaporating away game after game as well despite the irony of Pau's increased comfort with the Lakers' other stars coming after moving from a system thought to be perfect for his talents in the Princeton offense to one less so with D'Antoni. Naturally, a big part of this has been Pau's discovery of a consistent three-point stroke, which is something we have to see for another dozen games or so before we can treat it as something other than a statistical fluke. But even past this issue, Pau's synergy with everyone else is evident in how smoothly he is controlling the offense from the high post and the block, as he appears very comfortable as the de facto point guard once Nash leaves the floor. It wouldn't be surprising for anywhere from four to six assists to become his norm as everyone tries to cover the Lakers' other stars and allows Pau to work as a distributor. He even seems to be regaining his touch in the post, as seen by a downright Dream Shake-esque sequence in which he drove from the corner, stopped, faked one way, and went up the other for a wide open shot.
- Darius Morris -- Morris finally had the game we thought he could as a defensive stopper who could work off the rest of the starters, as he played great defense on Lillard the entire night. While bigger matchups at the two and three are more difficult for him at this stage in his career, Morris shines against point guards, nearly all of whom are shorter and smaller than him, and his lateral quickness allows him to use his size to bother them on their drives. Lillard is a rookie and he will no doubt find ways to be effective despite this as his career progresses, but Morris did solid work stopping a key source of the Blazer effort that sunk the Lakers in October. On the offensive end, Morris finally appeared to gain some comfort, as he finished well around the rim on generally well executed drives and displayed his athleticism on a sweet alley-oop finish from Kobe in transition.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight rebounded well from a horrid effort in Denver, as he locked down on defense and worked over Portland's post defenders on the other end with deft moves and sheer physicality on the offensive boards. His lift clearly still isn't all the way back, as he continues a perplexing tendency to miss on point blank layups, especially on reverse ones. This noted, his post game was consistently effective throughout the night, and he stopped a Hack-a-Dwight attempt in decisive fashion by nailing all of his free throws. The issue for Dwight is maintaining this effort in spite of his physical condition, which should hopefully cease to be an issue in a month or so.
- Jordan Hill -- Nights like this are ones in which you can't help but keep Hill in the rotation even if he isn't an ideal fit for what D'Antoni is doing, as his motor kept running despite missing a lot of the midrange shots he normally nails. Around the rim, he continues his usual, indomitable presence on the offensive boards, and he has grown better at converting these into buckets rather than rushed putback attempts as they largely were last season. Defensively, he got the short end of the stick by being matched on Aldridge, and there was little he could do to stop him from raining down fadeaway jumper after jumper over him in the midpost area. As Hill is a much better help defender than straight-up post one because of the strength differential against larger bigs, one wishes Pau or Dwight could have taken the assignment, especially given Portland's lack of scoring options elsewhere in the frontcourt.
- Honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who overcame a bad shooting night from distance and still provided a fair amount of value on the floor. His awkward post game and fadeaway jumpers aren't pretty, but he got a few of them to drop and he remains effective at either forward spot because of his mix of shooting, driving ability, and decent defense. It is the biggest reason Antawn Jamison has been nailed to the bench and also why it is hugely unlikely that he cracks the rotation anytime soon since both Hill and MWP have made strong cases for Jamison's ideal spot at the four. While it is unfortunate to bench someone who has made some big contributions this season, MWP's play offers a pretty compelling reason to do so.
- Chris Duhon -- Duhon wasn't particularly bad per se, but on a night on which nearly everyone else was good to excellent, Duhon's mediocrity stands out. It may be setting expectations too high for a career backup to look good when Steve Nash of all people vacates the floor, but Duhon has put up a string of so-so to outright bad performances recently. While he does throw solid entry passes -- an underrated skill given the proliferation of guards who were outright terrible at it on the Lakers in the past few years -- he really depends on either Kobe or Pau to maintain the offensive flow on the floor. If asked to just spot up behind the arc, his deficiencies would perhaps be minimized, but another consistent ballhandler outside of Kobe doesn't really exist on the roster. D'Antoni feeling it necessary to experiment with a three guard lineup of Duhon, Morris, and Meeks could indicate at least partly the difficulties inherent in getting the offensive humming with Duhon at its head.
- Jodie Meeks -- Another game, more wayward drives to the rim for Meeks, who doesn't seem to process where he is most effective. Even in garbage time, the Blazers' end-of-bench players were stripping the ball away or blocking his attempts with ease, which is a damning indictment of Meeks' finishing ability. Perhaps his forays to the rim would be more tolerable if something positive, such as a pass to a cutter or roll man, was mixed in with them, but almost every time, Meeks drives to the rim with the intent of scoring and miserably fails. Meeks' heralded effort play was a perfect microcosm of his play, as he got rejected twice at the rim, recovered the ball to a teammate, and nailed the three after receiving a pass. If he stuck to his treys, he would be sitting on an exceptionally efficient night and no one would be complaining, yet he keeps on putting himself in these situations.