The Los Angeles Lakers walked into New Orleans in the midst of a two game losing streak, just one day removed from blowing a 17 point lead to the Houston Rockets, and looked like that same dysfunctional team through the first half of the game against the Hornets. Halftime passed, and an entirely new Lakers team took to the floor, anchored by the defensive monster that is Dwight Howard. After allowing the Hornets to grab 10 offensive rebounds in the first half as they scored 48 points, the Lakers permitted only one more offensive board to touch the hands of the Hornets and cut them down to 39 second half points. In the midst of the tale of two halves, Kobe Bryant scored his 30,000th point, becoming the fifth, and youngest, player to reach this accolade in the NBA.
The New Orleans Hornets, soon to be the New Orleans Pelicans as has been widely reported, went into the game with a 5-11 record and a roster missing two key elements: #1 draft pick Anthony Davis, and Chris Paul trade centerpiece Eric Gordon. Still, they opened the game crisply and exposed the Lakers defense for what it has been far too often this season: makeshift. The Lakers defensive rotations, if they even bother moving, were late and wrong more often than not. Robin Lopez took advantage of out of place defenders and cut to the rim time and time again. Ryan Anderson found himself in position for five offensive rebounds. The Hornets were rolling and the Lakers were once again being outplayed by a lesser talented team. The traveling beat reporters busily tweeted that Dwight Howard was calling Kobe Bryant out specifically for his poor defense throughout the first half, and as the Lakers were spiraling to what looked like a damning third straight loss, they came out of halftime a different team.
The defensive issues are spread throughout the roster. Kobe Bryant lazily follows his man or over commits to playing free safety around the elbow. Pau Gasol bodies up his match-up too closely, allowing him to blow by. The team as a whole fails to rotate properly and communicate. But, there's still the single most dominant defensive player in the league on the roster, and in the second half of the game he took command of the defense. In the 3rd quarter the Hornets went 2-8 around the restricted area as Dwight Howard invited them into his home so he could slam the door right in their faces.
"Oh, what's that, you drove past Chris Duhon? Come on in."
Kobe Bryant is an offensive savant. He can score from anywhere on the floor, at any given moment, and has absolutely no conscious. Call it chucking, call it errant offense, but he will find ways to score when no one else on the team can get the ball into the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes he takes a higher volume than ideal, but more often than not this season he's been brilliant in staying efficient even when faced with having to crank up attempts. The offense is Kobe's right now, and when Steve Nash gets back? Forget about it. Nash and Kobe, together, will keep the Lakers offense churning. But what the Lakers have lacked over the last few seasons is the exact specialist that Dwight Howard is.
A leader for the defense.
It's a beautiful thing that Dwight Howard was holding Kobe Bryant accountable for his defensive short-comings. If Howard is going to be held to an elite standard on both ends of the floor he too should have expectations of his teammates. His comrades. His partners in leading the Lakers to a championship. The expectation for Howard to stay engaged in pick and roll sets, clean the glass, and drain his free throws at an improved rate exists and makes it only fair for him to expect teammates to invest into the defense. Stan Van Gundy was a great coach for the Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard. The offense was clean and simple, highlighting the strengths of both Howard and the role players at their disposal. The defense, though, was able to mask TERRIBLE individual defenders. All because players simply knew where to move and when to move. Without Stan Van Gundy on the sideline fostering a defense for Dwight to carry, the responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the three time defensive player of the year to make the defense his own. To become a defensive savant, akin to Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant when put to the task of offense.
In stretches throughout the season Dwight Howard has looked like a demon defensively, and he showed it once more against the Hornets. With each transcendent defensive game from Howard it becomes more and more clear that his ability to change the game on defense is perhaps the most important treasure for the Lakers to excavate. Mike D'Antoni, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash will take care of the offense. The offense will come far more naturally than the defense will with the team as constructed. Howard must rise and become a leader beyond just namesake. Be the asshole that Kobe urged him to be more of when the big man made his way to Los Angeles. If he truly wants to become one of the greatest of all time, to deserve to be on that wall out there that Mitch Kupchak points out to at their practice facilities, to have his jersey hanging up there with the likes of Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then he must take control of the defense. Be the asshole who calls out teammates who are playing poor defense, and then help them fix it.
And, on a night that served as a reminder of just how great Kobe Bryant is as he scored that 30,000th point, Dwight Howard made a demand. Play some damn defense. The second half is just another example of how good this defense can be when they actually try. Another half of holding a team under 40 points. Perfectly juxtaposed by the last two losses in which they gave up 74 points in both 4th quarters combined. Jekyll and Hyde, per the flow of the season. The defense took care of business in the second half, though, and it's also worth noting this is a New Orleans team without two of their top players. But the transformation from the 1st half to the 2nd showed that on an internal level, the Lakers did what they had to in order to improve and re-write the game that was being played.
Kobe Bryant settled into another sublime game for his standout season, scoring 29 points on 10-17 shooting, 4 assists, and 6 rebounds. He also came up with 3 steals, his ball hawking paying off as it rarely does. His 30,000th point went down in the history books as he used his footwork to weave through defenders, created space, and stuck a jumper over the outstretched arm of Robin Lopez. History in motion.
Jordan Hill had another great game off of the bench, helping the reserves maintain and actually build on the lead the starters opened the 2nd half with. His 9 points and 8 rebounds in 16 minutes screamed at Mike D'Antoni, "find me time". The fact that he hit a few mid-range jumpers couldn't have hurt his standing with D'Antoni, who is still fiddling with the player pool he inherited from Mike Brown.
With Antawn Jamison continuing to play well as he becomes the most consistent floor spreading option for the Lakers Mike D'Antoni is going to be faced with having to play a four man rotation in the front court once Pau Gasol is ready to make a return. Chaining Jordan Hill to the bench is senseless, and Jamison's offensive skill-set is far too valuable to stifle. Another 15 point outing from Jamison, which feels like is becoming a routine occurence. His 3-4 shooting from outside remains key in any success, and his decision making on cuts continues to be crisp and decisive.
A much quieter story on this night, but Metta World Peace has trucked along to a milestone himself. He reached the 12,000 point benchmark in his career, scoring 11 on the night. Add that to team high 9 rebounds and it was another positive outing from Metta. Another surprisingly positive player as of late? Chris Duhon, who had 10 assists and zero turnovers, a key in the Lakers offense remaining stable. As a team, the Lakers had only 9 turnovers, and as such had the opposite outcome of an 18 turnover game against Houston.
Play defense, take care of the ball, and good things happen. Much like good things happened for Ryan Anderson, who had to carry the Hornets on his back for them to even be in the game with the way Dwight Howard turned the restricted area into a war zone. The sharpshooting stretch power forward ended the night with 31 points, going 5-8 in his three point attempts, and pulled down 9 boards. Ryan Anderson is showing his time in Orlando was no fluke, and even with a team lacking scoring options and the post-presence that helped spread the floor when he was partnered with Dwight in Orlando he's producing. Exceptionally well.
The Hornets lack of talent with the absence of Gordon and Davis proved to be too much to overcome, and despite a great effort of attacking the Lakers defense in the first half, the future Pelicans fell well short when it was all said and done. Lakers claim this 103-87 victory and improve to a 9-10 record with Oklahoma City lined up next in a Friday night prime time game on ESPN. Dwight Howard must embrace becoming a leader of men to make the defense greater than the sum of it's parts, and Kobe Bryant must nod in approval at the man who is next in line to carry the franchise. Calling out Kobe Bryant isn't something many teammates would be willing to do, but Howard didn't care what Bryant thought. It was time to fix the problem as a leader of the Lakers, and that itself is a step in the right direction.
12,000 points for Metta World Peace; 30,000 points for Kobe Bryant; 1 successful stand for Dwight Howard.
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- Give At The Hive a look over and see how they're handling scoring only 16 points in the 3rd quarter.