LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: Metta World Peace #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers leaves the court after being ejected for hitting James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on April 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 114-106 in double overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Upon the league's hand down of Metta World Peace's 7 game suspension for a brutal elbow to the head and neck of James Harden, Lakers fans groaned at the thought of the team's starting small forward missing the first round of the playoffs, and potentially part of the second. Metta had just recently awoken from what seemed like a season-long slumber, averaging 14/4/3 on 47% shooting in April after 3 straight months of averaging 6 points a game and 4 rebounds a game, all while shooting 35%. His suspension was untimely in so many different ways, not just in the calendar and stat sheet, but also in regards to the progress he seemed to have made in remaking his personal image.
Getting back to the matter at hand, most prognosticators really had no concerns about the Lakers beating the Denver Nuggets without World Peace. The only real concern anyone had concerning his absence would be LA's inside game and if the defense would suffer. After all, the last month has been a revelation for Metta. He's gotten most of his buckets in the painted area and he also showed flashes of all-world defense that just about everybody thought was long gone. Against a team like Denver, full of fleet-footed slashers who each can also shoot the lights out, one would have expected Metta's absence to hurt the Lakers significantly.
But it's been three games since Metta World Peace decided that James Harden's head should no longer rest upon his shoulders. Have you missed him? At all? With two playoff games against Denver in the books, there's been nary a word about Metta's absence. I haven't seen a headline or byline reiterating the former Mr. Artest's suspension, the careless actions behind it, or the consequences of it. Could it be that after a 9-5 April in which Metta helped the Lakers thrive, with wins against Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas and the Clippers (and a loss against Sacramento, which shouldn't be counted against the star-less Lakers), could LA actually be prospering in his absence?
The Lakers may not be a better team with Metta World Peace missing time, but they definitely aren't all that much worse. Here's a few reasons why:
Winning is like a smooth bottle of tequila: You drink it and it's going to make you forget everything. The Lakers have won these past two games, handily at times, which is the best cure for any ailment they might have. Pretty simple.
Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes: While neither man has played spectacular, both small forwards have been able to give the Lakers some of what Metta was providing, but more importantly, neither has hurt the team in trying to do so. Ebanks in particular has been solid, attacking the boards (13 in two games) and sinking 8 to 10 footers with surprising confidence. Barnes is battling a mildly sprained ankle, and though he hasn't been the tatted-up human pogo stick we've all become accustomed to, he's been able to contribute with his passing (5 dimes) and defense (4 steals and 2 blocks). Neither has been able to put pressure on the interior defense like World Peace has done the previous month or so, but both are offsetting that value by going after balls and shooters with much more athleticism.
Kobe: Much like how Coach Mike Brown experimented with a three-guard line-up towards the end of the season, Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake and Kobe have played together for extended minutes with our favorite unhinged small forward out. Bryant has been especially aggressive in the paint knowing that this is the case, attacking the rim at will and as a result getting to the line 18 times. With Kobe playing the 3 as well as he has against Denver, how could you really miss World Peace?
Denver's Small Forward Production: Its been a joke. Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington are both shooting below 38% for the series, with Harrington getting to the charity stripe exactly zero times. While Gallo had a shocking amount of effective work in the paint game 1's blowout, he regressed heavily in game 2, shooting 5 for 18. The other part of their small forward corps, Corey Brewer, has some nice looking numbers (12 points per game on 61% shooting), but his actual on-court production has been mostly limited to run-outs orchestrated by Denver's fast break attack. All in all, Denver's small forwards have been decent at best to poor at worst. Hardly a cause for anyone to miss one of the self-proclaimed "best defenders in the game".
James Harden: Thankfully, the Bearded Wonder doesn't seem to be any worse for wear after being laid out a couple weeks ago. He's been playing fantastic for the Thunder in their series against Dallas, and has shaken off (visibly, at least) any lingering effects from his concussion. If he missed any time, or his game was shaken up at all, you bet there'd be a lot more MWP news on the wire.
It's still funny to me that after all the press about the viciousness of Metta's elbow and how well he was playing in the past month that we all could seemingly forget his absence so easily within a week and a half. I suppose it's more a testament to how well the Lakers are playing as a team, particularly Kobe, Devin and Matt, and the excitement of postseason hoops in LA. However, I'm prepared for all the venom of the LA media to come spewing out if Gallo, Brewer or Harrington has a big game 3. Let's hope not.