Back when it was reported that the Lakers would start Kobe Bryant on Kyrie Irving last Sunday, yours truly laughed and predicted that Irving would torch the Lakers as usual. Irving was simply too good and Kobe too far past his defensive prime to impact his game significantly. So, after a considerable amount just desserts were served, we were quick to dismiss the defensive effort as at least somewhat a product of the team they were facing, although Kobe's defense on Irving was undeniably impressive. Well, we now have exhibit two of the Lakers' defense in Mike D'Antoni's "new season" and the evidence is starting to mount that they are figuring things out. It certainly wasn't perfect, as Milwaukee killed the Lakers on the offensive glass and there were occasional breakdowns there and there, but for the most part, the Lakers' consistent effort, aggressive rotations, and intelligent denial was a far cry from the clueless and feeble performances that has usually typified the Lakers' defense this year.
And it all started with Kobe, who hounded the hell out of Brandon Jennings and broke down the integrity of the Bucks' offense. With the ball forced to secondary and even tertiary options, as Earl Clark and others did solid work on Monta Ellis, the Bucks' offense was completely discombobulated. As we see again and again, length and athleticism matter in this league, and a Dwight Howard and Earl Clark frontline fits that description as the two sky for rebounds, hedge and trap the pick-and-roll, and make attacking the rim a hellish proposition. The wings will have to do a better job of rotating and boxing out to help with rebounding, but it was more or less the only significant blemish on the Lakers' overall defensive performance.
Of course, we must also observe the Lakers' offensive production, as while the Bucks are a poor offensive team, they are a top ten defensive unit that the Lakers blew apart. In the first quarter, every single one of the Lakers' made field goals were assisted, and the the team finished with 30 assists on 42 made field goals for the evening. Guys simply are getting much more comfortable playing with one another and it shows in the paucity of turnovers, something that has been the Lakers' bete noire this season. It certainly far more resembles the image we had of how dominant this Lakers team could be at the start of the year. This optimism aside, the Lakers will be dealt the stiffest test of their their newfound identity Thursday against the Heat, a far superior opponent on both ends and one that can legitimately beat the Lakers even if they are at their best. How much the Lakers have turned the proverbial corner will certainly be tested then.
- Kobe Bryant -- That Kobe continues to be capable of games like this at his age and with so many minutes on his odometer is positively absurd. He not only compiled a 31/2/6 line on 12-19 shooting, but he played world class on ball defense and ball denial on the Bucks' primary ballhandler, whether that meant chasing them through screens or actually sticking with them when they didn't have the ball. Jennings couldn't even get the rock on a lot of possessions because Kobe was draped all over him and it was a superlative performance from the very same guy who has been in full DGAF mode on that end for most of the year. Indeed, Kobe was gassed near the end of the third quarter, yet he was still trying his heart out on defense and nailing all the usual ridiculous shots he makes. It is hard to imagine him bringing this defensive intensity along with the tremendous offensive efficiency on a regular basis, but Kobe's commitment to defense is stirring the rest of the team along as they actively disrupt the opposing offense. There really isn't much to say: it's the type of fantastic performance that you can't help but sit back and admire.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight is still a step or two slow on defense, but he looked really bouncy for the second straight game as he dominated the Bucks frontcourt. His body control was excellent as he essentially just finished everything that was sent his way around the rim. The Lakers guards did a great job of getting him the ball in good position and he reciprocated by finishing well. The team was especially good at getting him the ball as a reward for him running the floor and gaining deep post position. In general, one of the best sign of the team's synergy is how many easy buckets they are feeding Dwight off pick-and-roll action and such, as it indicates that the ball is moving and the most efficient shots -- dunks or three-pointers -- are being maximized. Best of all, Dwight did this while only turning the ball over two times, something he can owe to the fewer post-ups he saw in favor of rolls and easy cuts to the rim, although he did a much better job of holding onto the ball as he bullied Milwaukee's frontcourt in the deep post.
- Earl Clark -- Clark as a midrange assassin fizzled, but Clark as the stat sheet stuffer and solid defender continues on in a very strong way. Yet again, he nabbed at least nine rebounds and three assists and the consistency of the latter item is intriguing because his first instinct whenever he puts the ball on the floor is to look for a teammate to pass to. And for the most part, he makes good reads in this regard, including a slick pass to Metta World Peace in transition. Normally, a big with Clark's defensive aptitude could be passable if he was simply hitting his midrange jumpers on the other end, but the several ways Clark can contribute as a passer, offensive rebounder, and finisher around the rim offers a lot of value on the court. His defense against Milwaukee, moreover, just highlights his general versatility, as he started on Monta Ellis and displayed no discomfort at playing away from the rim against one of the game's quickest penetrating guards.As much as Kobe and Dwight have been a big part in the resurgence of the defense, so has Clark's versatility on that end and ability to cover multiple positions been especially valuable.
- Steve Nash -- The bizarre decline in Nash's accuracy, notably as a three-point shooter, is irksome considering how wide open he is most of the time, but on nights such as these on which he controls the offense superbly, it doesn't matter that much. We know about Nash's flair for the spectacular, but perhaps his best attribute is his ability to make every entry pass like positively mundane. Kobe fronted by a defender in the midpost area? Nash will lob it over the opposing player to Kobe flawlessly, even when moving in transition. Dwight run the floor and claim deep post position? He's getting the ball and Nash as an option on the wing as part of the two man game. It's little things like this that pass under the radar as we (rightly) focus on Nash's great pick-and-roll synergy with Dwight against Milwaukee, as they are the things that help the offense flow. With reference to the team's defensive turnaround, Nash's ability to do a respectable job on the player the team tries to hide him on is important and he did a decent job despite giving up a lot of inches to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. This won't be possible in some matchups, but Nash's deficiencies on this end have never been from a lack of effort.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison isn't really your traditional catch-and-shoot stretch four type, which made his performance from behind the arc against Milwaukee quite encouraging. You wish he would take it to the rim more with the second unit, however, as the all-bench squad that gave Milwaukee back the lead was utterly toothless on that end. Aside from his offense, Jamison continues to perform decently when he isn't asked to be one of the key help defenders in the interior. As mentioned in previous posts, Clark helps tremendously in this regard since not only can he switch onto Jamison's man, he can rotate over to help cover for Jamison's mistakes. So long as this is the case, Jamison can provide much more of a positive impact even on a night in which his overall offensive performance was acceptable but not especially good, although he did make some nice defensive plays throughout the contest.
- Metta World Peace -- While he certainly is nowhere near the liability Jamison is on defense, Clark's presence provides MWP with a similar degree of freedom as he isn't counted upon to be a big help defender. Although great in isolation and picking the pocket of ballhandlers, MWP doesn't perform all that well when asked to check the pick-and-roll -- he perpetually looks confused as to whether he should hedge, blitz, lay back, or switch -- or deter a drive towards the rim. On offense, it all comes back to whether he is hitting his jumpers from outside and he added that along with a set of stepback shots from midrange. MWP also broke out of his tunnel vision stretch by dishing out three dimes, a welcome indication of how he's becoming more involved in the overall offensive flow with Dwight back.
- Honorable mention to Robert Sacre, who might be somewhat hapless on offense but really works well defensively. Even if he doesn't possess the physical ability and athleticism to be an impact player on this end, he knows where to be and does a solid job in help defense. That's all you can ask of your fifth big who was playing in the D-League a week ago. This noted, you wish he could really work on one thing to refine in his offensive game, whether it was a jump hook, midrange shot, or something. If he develops one consistent tool, he can work within the context of the offense, whereas now he's floundering as a roll man and in general, the guy who stands around and doesn't touch the ball all that much.
- Darius Morris -- Morris did a respectable job checking Ellis, but these are the poor offensive nights on which his value dwindles. The haphazard drives to the rim and comical inability to finish on what should nominally be good looks hamstrung him. That and what used to be his good decision-making on drives has appeared to evaporate, as seen when he took a pass from Kobe in transition and decided to take it all the way to the rim himself, where he got swatted. These are the speed bumps you face on the way to developing a potential three-and-D guy who can run the offense a bit, but they definitely hurt a bit in terms of the team's production when he's on the floor.
- Chris Duhon -- Duhon's poor shooting is somewhat excusable since he was miscast as a go-to guy for the disastrous all-bench unit, but he's a guy you need to produce offensively to justify playing him minutes. Although it would be a tall task for Nash to elevate a lineup containing Morris, Clark, Jamison, and Sacre, that's the reality of what Duhon has to deal with until Pau comes back. The setback for Steve Blake, however, may result in a curtailing of his minutes as the Lakers may be forced to make a move for another backcourt guy to supplement the rotation.