Well, give the Lakers this: they kept plugging away at the problem they needed to figure out and after multiple iterations of Mike D'Antoni's system, they settled upon one that finally looks like it can be a model for success. And just as with the last one in which Kobe Bryant took the lead as the defensive vanguard against the primary ballhandler, so has he stepped up again as the primary playmaker. It is a role steeped in irony given Kobe's consistent proclamations of who he is -- a scorer -- and especially so considering how we expected the dynamic between Steve Nash and Kobe to work out, but D'Antoni has once again co-opted a supposed weakness on the team and turned it into a strength. If nothing else, Kobe lives for challenges and his current one is certainly one of the most formidable of his career: to be Nash within D'Antoni's system.
It is quite a remarkable piece of reverse psychology that has gone on to produce such a result, but it is one in which the pieces finally look like they fit naturally. As we have seen, Nash, while still possessed of marvelous court vision and no doubt still a solid playmaker in his own right, no longer has the jets to be effective as he once with the ball in his hands all the time. Kobe, however, can be one in the midpost area, from the top of the key, or really most anywhere on the floor given his remarkable resurgence this year. It may be too late to save the Lakers' season given the hole they have dug for themselves, but give credit to the most indomitable of the Lakers for changing his game in a way that we definitely did not expect.
- Kobe Bryant -- And a big part of Kobe's newfound role is his utter dominance of the baseline, where he did damage again and again against OKC. His footwork is so good in that area that you constantly have to respect his ability to spin away from you and score around the rim, and this opens up opportunities for him to thread the needle to cutters and shooters. This sometimes degenerates into little more than an extended Kobe post-up as he vies for position and is feeling the defense, but for the most part, it was remarkably effective against both a solid individual defender and the OKC team defense in general. Whether this level of commitment from Kobe can be maintained is another issue entirely, but so long as the team continues to win this way, it will likely provide all the motivation Kobe needs to continue in this regard.
- Pau Gasol -- Part of Kobe's motivation might be that his proclivity for dimes appears to have replenished the mojo of Pau, who did damage all across the floor as a shooter off the pick-and-pop -- Kobe is adept at fitting those nice pocket passes as anyone in the game -- a finisher around the rim on cuts, drives, and some effective post-ups. Combined with his own adept passing as ever from the high post, we saw the multifaceted Pau we are used to seeing on the court and it is especially endearing that this is happening in a bench role that he expressly stated that he was displeased with. It may be too late for Pau to get any votes for Sixth Man of the Year, but he is a significant impact player the Lakers can bring off the bench. If he could start hitting his free throws in his normal fashion and not like his frontcourt counterpart, it would be even better.
- Steve Nash -- We are reminded that Nash's playmaking ability is only half of his game, as he remains a phenomenally effective shooter who works well off the ball filling the spaces on the floor. The Lakers were particularly good at finding him in semi-transition and setting screens for him not necessarily to create for others, but give him space for his own shot, as Nash is really effective from essentially any spot on the floor. Teams like OKC that start dedicated three-and-D players the Lakers can hide Nash on are also arguably easier matchups than supposed non-scoring point guards the Lakers feel comfortable leaving him on, as it diminishes the disadvantage of Nash's limited lateral quickness.
- Antawn Jamison -- In the kind of freestyling system that D'Antoni wants to run in which the ball is freely moving and you rely on the creativity of your playmakers to to make things work, players like Jamison who thrive on broken plays are particularly valuable, as he can finish while moving around the rim and hit a jumper or two as he fills the open spaces on the perimeter to space the floor. D'Antoni finally appears comfortable using Jamison as not solely a stretch four, which is nice since it allows Jamison to use his full repertoire on offense. This still means that the team has to deal with Jamison as the liability on the defensive end, but he appears to be ingratiating himself into the minor reserve role we envisioned at the start of the year.
- Metta World Peace -- Even though Metta's shooting numbers haven't necessarily been great and the percentage of shots he takes within the offense is somewhat disconcerting, it's his ability to play and guard both forward spots ably that is helping the system to work. He hits just enough threes and shots around the rim when he puts his head down on drives or post-ups to be effective and while we tend to remember the crazy drives and nutty turnovers, they happen infrequently enough that we can deal with them. In other words, he acts as the ideal glue guy in a system that desperately needs someone who can fill the Shawn Marion role perhaps not to the superlative levels that Marion did a few years ago, but in some capacity.
- Honorable mention to Earl Clark, who continues to do all the little things at both forward spots. Given a tremendous defensive assignment in Kevin Durant, he performed as decently as you can against a guy who can't really be stopped. Although his midrange game appears to be faltering a bit, he made up for it by cutting to the rim, attacking the offensive glass, and hitting the occasional three. His awareness to cut at the right time appears to be pretty solid as well, his dunk off a Kobe baseline pass the prime example. And with Metta a more limited defender nowadays, Clark is by the team's most versatile player on that end, a pretty dire need for the team nowadays.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight was still effective yesterday despite a spree of somewhat unearned foul trouble and his contributions on defense down the stretch were particularly valuable to sustaining the Lakers' lead, but he can't continue to be this limited on offense. Simply, dumping it down to Dwight in the low post, as the Lakers try to do on a lot of possessions isn't effective unless he has a guy he can push all the way underneath the basket. It's not to say that Dwight doesn't have a post game, but he doesn't have the classic catch, one dribble, hook shot sequence that we ascribe to traditionally effective post players. Bereft of some measure of his quickness and jumping ability, his running hooks don't have the same level of effectiveness and while he still draws a lot of fouls -- and missed a lot of those free throws yesterday -- he isn't a guy that you can go through in the post consistently as of now. Again, part of it is his limitations stemming from his injuries, but that's the reality of what the team has to deal with now.
- Chris Duhon -- At last, our great national nightmare of 35 foot pull-up threes will come to an end on Tuesday when Steve Blake returns from injury and Duhon didn't exactly have a great finale. He missed both of his threes and was subject to a highlight reel as his expense when Russell Westbrook undressed him at the top of the key and took the ball the length of the court for a dunk. For as long as he's had to fill a spot in the rotation, Duhon has honestly been better than expectations and definitely superior to what his reputation implied about his level of play, but it will be a relief for the team to finally not have a gaping hole at the position, assuming Blake really is as good in D'Antoni's system as he says he is.