Beast or Burden: On the Precipice

April 22, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Jordan Hill (27) battles Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) for a rebound in the second half of the game at the Staples Center. Lakers won in double OT 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

After the insanity of the shortened season, having the playoffs in sight and a clear hold on the number three seed must be comforting to Lakers fans, who have had to deal with a whirlwind set of changing circumstances this year. Week to week, the team either looked like a world beater, a mediocre squad, or complete garbage, something that was seemingly subject to the whims of the basketball gods. The ever-changing rotations of Mike Brown were one such cause, as players were inserted into the lineup or demoted to the bench seemingly every other game or so, and there were many circumstances in which his decisions were questionable, if not mind-boggling. That noted, if we are to criticize, we must be ready to dole out praise as appropriate, and Brown did hell of a thing against Oklahoma City on Sunday. He stuck with a mostly energy lineup that showed heart, worked on defense, and clawed the Lakers back into the game close enough to clear the way for some patented Kobe Bryant heroics. Even more than the walloping of San Antonio, this game was probably the Lakers' best win of the season and hopefully showed that they have the mettle to grind their way through a postseason that is finally before them.

Beast

  • Jordan Hill -- No player better embodied this than Hill, whom Brown took off the bench seemingly as a whim, and in the space of a few minutes, he clearly proved why he was Josh McRoberts' and Troy Murphy's superior. He rebounded like a madman -- and this is no fluke; he is eighth in the entire league in rebound rate (19.8) -- ran the floor, played some inspired pick-and-roll and defense, and displayed a decent midrange and post-up game. He was picked eighth in the 2009 draft for a reason, as his lateral quickness and athleticism allowed him to successfully hedge and recover and disrupt plays in space, something no other big on the roster has been able to do consistently. His contest on Russell Westbrook's three at the end of the first overtime on Sunday was a textbook example. The number of plays, moreover, that he extended by simply working his tail off can't be counted, and if he is coming into his own after a turbulent beginning to his NBA career, the Lakers got hell of a gem for an aging Derek Fisher.
  • Devin Ebanks -- The assumption once Metta World Peace took it open himself to take himself out of the game in one of the most disgraceful ways imaginable was that Durant was going to run amok, especially with Matt Barnes nursing a sore ankle. Ebanks, another player sitting on the bench until called into duty following Kobe's injury, prevented that with some excellent defense on Durant. Rather than be intimidated by Durant's enormous scoring ability, Ebanks used his Ariza-esque length -- that 7'0'' wingspan people -- to disrupt Durant's shots, deny him position, and generally do as respectable of a job as you can against a superstar talent. Like Hill, Ebanks also did solid work on the glass and got himself to the line as a result. With MWP likely missing at least the Lakers' first round series, Ebanks will have plenty of opportunity to further proves that he belongs in the rotation.
  • Kobe Bryant -- Yours truly may have gone hoarse after the start of the fourth quarter cheering the ridiculous number of insane shots Kobe hit to push the Lakers ahead, but even before that, Kobe was impressing by playing some of the best defense he had in a long time by making life hell for Westbrook. He was active, engaged, and clearly bothered Westbrook's attempts to penetrate or get loose for shots, as his miserable 3-22 shooting night can attest to. If the rest Kobe received while recovering from injury after a brutal amount of minutes enables him to play this kind of defense in the playoffs, needless to say, the Lakers' chances immeasurably improve.
  • Honorable mention goes to both Steve Blake and Pau Gasol. Blake has been the butt of criticism -- rightfully so mind you -- ever since Ramon Sessions' arrival in Los Angeles, but he did great work closing out the game by hitting big threes and making plays on defense. If he doesn't have to handle the main playmaking responsibilities and can spot up, he is perfectly serviceable. With Kobe no doubt taking the lion's share of minutes in the playoffs, this likely will not be a problem. As for Pau, it would be remiss not to recognize him for nearly pulling out a second triple double in three games, this time against a marquee opponent. He was accurate from range, set some solid picks that allowed Kobe's backbreaking jumpers, and played the all-around game we appreciate him for.
Burden
  • Metta World Peace -- It really is indefensible. Intentions or not, MWP's elbow was at best, reckless, and even that might be too mild of a description. Many have rightfully noted that it is impossible to diagnose what exactly what was going through his head at the moment, but at the same time, you can't ignore the fact that he did a very dangerous and downright vicious act that had real consequences for the victim in James Harden. Yours truly really doubts whether MWP meant to deal a blow to Harden's head given how well he has conducted himself in the past few years, but at this point, all that is immaterial. It is especially sad given how well MWP has raised his game recently, and he was doing solid work against Durant on defense and in getting his own on offense. As well as Ebanks played in the second half and the two overtimes, the Lakers will miss MWP in his absence, however long it is, in the playoffs and the ramifications of his act will be felt.
  • Andrew Bynum -- How many centers barely try and put up ten points, eight rebounds, and five blocks in thirty minutes against a solid defensive frontcourt in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka? Bynum put forth about as much effort as he did against Golden State two games ago, and still got results. This is not to excuse Bynum for lollygagging, certainly, and he himself was calling out his effort -- and praising Hill's -- after the game, but it is always striking to see the dissonance at play here. Nevertheless, Bynum was one of two players -- the other being Kobe -- who gave a rat's ass in last year's playoffs, and the malaise and apathy on that team was far stronger than whatever it is in the current iteration of the Lakers. Legacies are built and made in the playoffs and Bynum has either JaVale McGee or Brendan Haywood to torment in the first round.
  • Ramon Sessions -- The disappearance of Sessions' aggressiveness has been disconcerting, although the team has gone away from the high pick-and-roll sets that have made him most effective. That noted, he did have success in the 1-2 pick-and-roll that he and Kobe have worked so well through, and that no doubt will continue to be part of the regular playbook in the playoffs. A week's rest to get whatever soreness is left in his shoulder should help him, especially in getting the accuracy back in his previously excellent three-point shooting. A simple antidote for the point guards that have plagued the Lakers in past playoffs is to make them work on defense and Sessions certainly has the potential to do that and more.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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