There are two irrefutable truths regarding the Los Angeles Lakers early in this new season: The first is that, when they are knocking down shots, this is one entertaining squad. They move the ball well, they play at a quick tempo, and by virtue of the three point guards in the rotation, they always have at least one competent ball handler on the floor. The second truth is that they will not always be knocking down shots, and when they can't hit from the outside, the Lakers are a somewhat limited offensive team. And their defense, no matter how hard they try (and they are trying very hard this year), will never be good enough for "somewhat limited" to make the grade. Last night was a perfect example; after a 22 point first quarter, Atlanta scored 27 in each of the final three frames. In the 2nd and 3rd quarters, the Lakers were right with them point for point. In the fourth, the Lakers went cold, and the game became a nail biter. The Lakers were able to hold on this time, but they cannot afford long stretches of offensive stagnation.
Xavier Henry - The bar none surprise of the season got his first start in place of the ineffective Nick Young, and he kept on delivering the goods. For the 3rd time in four games, X was the team's leading scorer, and he once again did it by being solid on the outside and fearless on the inside. 18 points on 11 shots should make anybody happy, and Henry is getting to the foul line at an elite rate. He's good for one or two charging fouls per game, but when the Lakers need some points, giving him the ball and letting him attack is a far better option than the Lakers could have hoped to expect on the perimeter without Kobe Bryant in the lineup.
Chris Kaman - Kaman was wonderfully efficient on the offensive end, scoring 10 points on 5-7 shooting, but he makes the list by virtue of his unexpectedly strong shooting repertoire. I knew Kaman was a good offensive player coming in to the season, but I was expecting just a heavy dose of spot up shooting with a few post ups mixed in. I had no idea he had the kind of mid-range game that can be just as effective even when a defender is right there with him. He's got some great one-on-one moves from 15 feet, including a one dribble pull up jumper that is straight Kobe-esque, so last night I went asked Twitter for help in giving Chris Kaman a Kobe name. Twitter did not disappoint. Chris Kaman, I dub thee: Cave Mamba
Steve Nash - Nash wasn't amazing, ending the night with 13 points on 5-13 shooting, but he did finally display some of the magic and court awareness that is his legacy for perhaps the first time this season. He moved better, he saw the court better, and he was throwing those one handed pocket passes we all drooled over when Nash was traded to the Lakers in the first place. Basically, the Steve Nash we all know and love is still in there somewhere, and tonight was the first time we caught a glimpse of him.
BONUS: Pau Gasol's dunk face - At the start of the half, Pau Gasol did this:
The dunk itself is awesome, but Pau's face as he runs back down court is utterly priceless. You can actually see him thinking "Well that just happened. I really didn't know what to expect there. I'm kind of impressed right now. Nice job, me. Nice job."
Jordan Farmar - Jordan had a rough go of things tonight. He couldn't make shots (2-8 shooting) and he was careless with the basketball. His four turnovers, to go along with just three assists, really stood out because both of his friendly competitors for point guard minutes put together strong performances under the team management category. Nash and Blake combined for 13 assists and zero turnovers, which made Farmar's forgettable night stand out all the more.
Pau Gasol's shot selection - Pau has never been a player who overly concerns you with his shooting volume, but tonight, he fell prey to taking a whole bunch of the wrong kind of shots. He had 18 attempts on the night (of which he only made five) and more than half of those attempts were from 15 feet or further, including two three point attempts. Pau has hit some threes early this season, and his shooting stroke appears much improved as compared to last season's struggle, but all we've heard since the end of last season was that Pau wanted more touches down low, and the Lakers have been foolish for pushing him off the low block in favor of Dwight Howard (and Andrew Bynum before him). With Kobe out, Gasol is the clear #1 option for the team, and seeing him continue to live on the outside during offensive sets is disappointing. I'm not sure whether this is by the coach's design or Gasol's mentality, but it's not ideal.
Jordan Hill's minutes - The Lakers have a real conundrum on their hands when it comes to Jordan Hill. He is clearly a talented and hard-working player who does a lot of things really, really well. What he doesn't do well is hit outside shots, and because he doesn't hit outside shots, Mike D'Antoni sees him as a "center-only" type of player. Problem is, the Lakers already have two centers, both of whom are pretty good. So Jordan has seen his opportunities dwindle. He didn't enter Friday's game against the Spurs until the fourth quarter, and today he only saw earlier action because Kaman was in foul trouble for most of the night. And yet, there can be no arguing that Hill is doing enough to justify way more playing time. He's got the best per minute stats of anybody on the team, by a fair margin, and good things happen when he's on the court. Last night, Shawne Williams fouled out, allowing us to see Hill close the game out with the starters. That lineup didn't exactly set the world on fire, but Hill's effort definitely played a part in ensuring Lakers victory, with no play more important than his offensive rebound with 20 seconds left to go in a tie game. Because of him, the Lakers get the ball back and Pau Gasol ends up at the free throw line to establish the margin of victory. I don't know what the best way to get Hill more minutes is (the obvious answer is to demote Shawne Williams, who has not looked good, to ballboy), but I do know that he needs to get more minutes.