Beast or Burden: Changing of the Guard

March 11, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) moves to the basket against the Boston Celtics during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Well, how about that? The Lakers, upholders of the mythic concept of playing hero ball in crunch time and abandoning any real sense of playing basketball, put together a solid stretch of plays to crawl back from a five point deficit in the closing minutes Sunday. In order, Kobe hit an admittedly ridiculous shot in the lane, passed to Andrew Bynum on a nice alley-oop attempt, nailed a wide open midrange shot after one of the best screens of Pau Gasol's career, and to the collective surprise of the entire fanbase, acted as a decoy on the penultimate possession while Bynum secured deep post position and sank a hook shot over Kevin Garnett. To top it all off, the Lakers played the Celtics perfectly on the final sequence of the game in a textbook example of how to defend a three point lead in the closing seconds. Unlike the collective reaction on every early morning television and radio station in existence the following day, I am not ready to say this was Kobe's big "passing the torch" moment to Bynum, but at the very least, it was an acknowledgment from Kobe of how much Bynum has matured and settled into a key role on the team. For all the rampant talk of the Lakers' chemistry imploding, it was a pretty notable, if not seminal, moment. Whether this will result in the Lakers pulling their heads out of their rears on the road is another matter, but we can bask in the positive vibes coming out of L.A. for the moment.

Beast

  • Andrew Bynum -- Yes, Garnett isn't as good of a defender as he once was -- although he still remains very, very good -- and his physical frame is ill-suited for stopping a gargantuan center like Bynum, but Drew can only play against the matchups that are in front of him. He was decisive in the post, active on defense, and showed all the things you want to see out of your number two option. His development in a season during which he has had to cope with greater responsibilities despite limited practice time and a new system has been hugely endearing, and it reminds us that Drew is still only 24 years old. The notion that Drew might not have yet reached his ceiling with the rest of the roster aging around him is another nice thought to entertain. If the front office obliges the fanbase and gets a real point guard, that growth will only hasten.
  • Kobe Bryant -- Kobe deserves major credit for subsuming his desire to take everything upon himself during the closing minutes of Sunday's game, and if he and Bynum are approaching the levels of synergy they enjoyed during the '07-'08 season before Bynum went down, that only foretells well for the Lakers' future prospects. Besides that, it was an altogether nice Kobe performance sans the lazy turnovers and playing a bit too far off Rajon Rondo. Another nice wrinkle is all of the 1-2 pick-and-rolls that Kobe has become involved in as a screen man, letting him get the ball in the post easier, and again, should we get a point guard who can actually penetrate, it will be hell of a combination.
  • Metta World Peace -- What is with him and marquee matchups on Sundays? MWP harassed Pierce into a bad shooting night, downright embarrassed him with a sweet steal and dunk, and was at the heart of the Lakers' renewed effort in the third quarter after struggling out of the half. MWP has shown in the past that his attention and effort are noticeably better with a clear wing threat for him to neutralize, so hopefully this -- as we said last Sunday against Miami -- indicates a return to form for MWP. It doesn't diminish the need for some more scoring punch at the three, but this iteration of MWP is far more the championship role player that was an integral part of the Lakers' title run than he was at the start of the year.
  • Honorable mention to Matt Barnes, who continues to be the best player on an otherwise struggling bench. He was outmatched against Pierce, who used his strength to bully him on the way to the basket, but his relentless pursuit of offensive boards and display of arguably the best cutting on the team continue to justifiably earn him rotation minutes. As we said before, the production of the players outside the big three is critical for this team's long-term prospects and the only player who has consistently done that this season is Barnes. Bravo.
Burden
  • Focus -- The last minute heroics might not have been needed if the Lakers had sustained a 14 point lead they acquired in the first quarter, a continual theme for the team this season. It partly is due to the bench and the fact that the Lakers lack consistent contributors, but the effort has waned from time to time. This isn't necessarily anything new for this squad, which was prone to sleepwalking against opponents during their championship years. The decreased talent level, however, has severely limited the Lakers' ability to slow down the horses even against a mediocre opponent. The number of times Pau Gasol left Brandon Bass open on an 18 footer, for instance, was maddening, as were much of the team's turnover troubles. It is understandable in a shortened season to have stretches such as these, but it behooves the Lakers, especially with the playoffs closing in, to start resembling a team that can make noise in the postseason. The passing of the trade deadline should help ease some of the anxiety that has gripped the team for most of the season -- especially for Pau -- and it will for the fanbase if it brings some much-needed improvements.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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