Beast or Burden: First Steps

Apr 29, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (35) guards Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) in the second half of game one in the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Lakers won 103-88. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Now that's how you open up a playoff run. The Lakers uncorked hell of a defensive effort against one of the league's elite offenses and absolutely stifled the Nuggets all night long. As Chris and several other people noted on Twitter during the game, the fear in the eyes of every Denver player driving to the rim was palpable, as they were all but certain that a certain behemoth center was coming over to bother their shot. This was as engaged as the Lakers have been on the defensive end all season, something especially notable considering how poor of a defensive team they have been lately. While you have to look at sample size and all that, one can venture that effort was the primary cause in the Lakers' previous defensive troubles, and there certainly is no shortage of that when the games start to matter. Needless to say, if the Lakers continue to play this well, not only will Metta World Peace likely still be watching the playoffs from his house in the second round, he might be there for more than just one game. All that noted, we have seen the Lakers take playoff opponents lightly in the past, but after last year's fiasco, the team certainly is putting the work in as of now.

Beast

  • Andrew Bynum -- Of course, it all started with a sublime defensive showing from Bynum, who was practically indistinguishable from every elite defensive center who has played the game. He contested shots everywhere on the court, removed the paint from the Nuggets' offensive options, and was so active that he switched onto Ty Lawson on one possession, stayed with him as he drove, and sent his shot attempt near the rim into the stands. The record breaking and all that were undoubtedly impressive -- especially so for anyone who breaks a Laker playoff record, always a superb accomplishment -- but the sheer amount of effort that Bynum invested into this game was more so. Bynum has run the gamut from lackadaisical to dominant this year on the defensive end, and to see him as absorbed in his defensive responsibilities as he was during his stretch after the All-Star game last season has to be an endearing sight to every Laker fan. That the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them is a mantra that has been true for every Laker championship run, and Bynum is no doubt a huge part of that.
  • Devin Ebanks -- It took all of five minutes for Ebanks to put to rest any concerns about whether he would be able to fill in for Metta World Peace, as he demonstrated a fluid midrange jumper, nice cuts to the rim, and a low usage, high efficiency performance that the Lakers expect from their small forwards. Like most of the Lakers today, he also showed his chops on defense, where he simply makes things happen with those long arms of his. He deflected passes, bothered shooters and generally did a solid job on whomever he was asked to check. One wonders whether he could have stayed out there for five or so more minutes in lieu of Matt Barnes, who had a good game in his own right after coming back from an ankle injury, but given how things played out, it looks like a moot point.
  • Kobe Bryant -- A few errant possessions aside, Kobe looked remarkably in control even during his somewhat lackluster first half, as he played within the offense and made a concerted effort to get to the rim, even if he wasn't getting calls every time. Even the shots that weren't going down were off open looks for the most part, and while Arron Afflalo did a decent job in staying with Kobe on his drives, he didn't overly bother Kobe. On defense, Kobe's attention wavered from time to time, but it certainly was a far cry from his usual free safety style. In the fourth quarter, Kobe put the finishing touches on what had been a superb effort for the entire team and buried the Nuggets under a storm of fancy footwork and sweet-looking jumpers.
  • Ramon Sessions -- So, those supposed playoff jitters? Sessions displayed none of them as he put forth a solid effort in his first career playoff game, especially notable considering that he had been struggling of late. His three point stroke showed itself in a pair of nice treys from the wing and the corner, two spots he normally shoots poorly from, and while he wasn't involved in straight-up pick-and-roll action as much as we are used to, he made some nice passes off penetration and made his counterpart work on defense, something we haven't had in a Lakers playoff series for quite some time. In a matchup he was supposed to be disadvantaged in against the lightning quick Ty Lawson, Sessions held his own, and the Nuggets' longevity in this series will be quite short unless they can turn that around.
  • Honorable mention to Pau Gasol and Steve Blake. Gasol had his usual well-rounded game and nearly matched Bynum in the triple double category. Time and time again, he would hit cutters or shooters from the low block or the high post and Denver was seemingly caught flat-footed each time. He had a few passes sail away from him when throwing lobs to Bynum, something he usually is very good at, and the 4-5 pick-and-roll between him and Bynum eventually produced an easy bucket in the second half. As for Blake, he continues his solid play off the bench, nailing threes off penetration, dishing out a few assists, and most of all, not giving up any turnovers, something he was prone to do at least once or twice a game in the regular season. With the playoff rotations in and the lion's share of ballhandling responsibilities taken up by Kobe and Sessions on most possessions, he is doing excellent work within his designated role and that is all the Lakers can ask of him.
Burden
  • Metta World Peace -- It must be especially awkward to get suspended for the first part of the playoffs and not only see your replacement perform well, but the team thrive in your absence. Assuming Ebanks continues his nice play in MWP's place, one has to imagine that he will continue to get minutes, begging the question of whose minutes MWP takes when he returns. No doubt against Oklahoma City, MWP's defensive expertise is needed against the likes of Kevin Durant, but altogether, one could say that there are worse problems than having a glut of quality small forwards on the roster.
  • Jordan Hill -- It's sad that these allegations have appeared after Hill displayed a solid effort in his first playoff experience, notching a double double and playing some great pick-and-roll defense. His odd inability to hit what is normally a fairly reliable midrange shot aside, Hill did good work on both ends and he consistently kept possessions alive by virtue of his sheer effort. No doubt his date in court will produce some turmoil for him, but the best thing he can do is to shut it out and continue to produce on the court. One way or another, the truth will come out at some juncture.
  • In one of the few times this season, the "Burden" section is really me grasping for straws. That tells you the kind of performance the Lakers put on Sunday afternoon, and one hopes it continues for the rest of the series.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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