Kobe as the point guard? Kobe as the point guard. - USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Lakers beat one of the best teams in the NBA by turning to an unlikely role reversal down the stretch.
Well, it took more than half a season, but the Los Angeles Lakers finally found a way to look like a formidable opponent against, well, a formidable opponent. When Mitch Kupchak made (what we thought was) the magic happen in the offseason, this is the team we envisioned.
Well, OK, maybe not exactly. I don't know too many people who had the Lakers' current offensive strategy pegged. For the second straight game, Kobe Bryant had more assists than he had shot attempts, once again finding himself one rebound shy of a triple double. For the second straight game, the man filling the void of aggressive scorer was Steve Nash. When the trade for Nash happened, people drooled at the thought of Kobe being able to work off the ball and find easier shot attempts with Nash running the show. Instead, it is Nash who is roaming and finding open space around the three point line as Kobe forces double teams and dishes out the dimes. This is something like the 4th different strategy the Lakers have attempted this season, and we've seen it for a very short time, but the early returns have been delightful.
This was a strange contest all around. The OKC Thunder did not play up to their usual standards, as both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had off nights. Westbrook, especially, was terrible from the floor, though he did somewhat make up for the poor shooting by matching Kobe stride for stride in the almost triple double category. But the two Thunder stars combined to shoot just 16-48. Some of those struggles were caused by a robust defensive effort from the Lakers, but there were also plenty of missed shots for the Thunder that normally go down. That said, the Lakers also had to deal with one of Dwight Howard's lesser performances (which are far less rare than bad shooting for the Thunder). Howard was energetic at times, but 8 points and 10 rebounds is not enough of a return, even if he had to deal with foul trouble that wasn't entirely his fault.
Another continuing trend: Pau Gasol thriving in his new bench role. Pau scored 16 points on 10 shots, and is once again looking like the kind of efficient scorer and playmaker from the low post that we know and love. His rebounding has not been great, and his defensive mobility is clearly diminished, but give credit to Mike D'Antoni for finding a role for Pau that has been effective. And give credit to Pau for accepting that role, and the demotion in status that comes along with it. Along with Pau, there were big shots hit by the Lakers role players, with Antawn Jamison (in the first half) and Jodie Meeks (in the second) providing scoring punch off the bench that kept the Lakers from losing ground when Kobe wasn't on the court. And Metta World Peace had another decent perimeter shooting performance, something which always makes a world of difference for the Lakers.
All around, this is a big win for the Lakers. With the recent clearing-the-air as a call to action, the last two games have shown the possibility that the call has been answered. Will the Lakers keep it up? Is it too late for them even if they do? We'll know soon enough. The Lakers will soon turn their attention to a long road trip, but one filled with very beatable opponents. It will be the perfect time either for a rebirth, or for the completion of their self destruction. One way or another, we won't have to wait too much longer to know what the 2nd half of the season has in store.