In the 82 games of 2012-2013, the Los Angeles Lakers failed to really establish an identity of any kind. After just 19 games, the Lakers of 2013-2014 most certainly have one, and tonight's victory was a perfect summation of the resilience and team spirit that have surprisingly kept the Lakers afloat so far this season. Trailing the entire evening, they simply refused to quit, to give up, or to die. On a team that seems to have a different top scorer every night, the Lakers won without anybody passing the 20 point threshold. And on a night in which the defense was in shambles through three quarters, the Lakers held Sacramento to just 13 points in the final frame, sealing the victory with five 4th quarter blocks and five 4th quarter steals and getting out of the way as the Kings careened themselves right off the tracks down the stretch.
All season long, Coach Mike D'Antoni has tinkered with the lineup like a mad scientist, and more often than not, what he's done has worked. Tonight, for example, he trotted out Robert Sacre as a starter next to Pau Gasol, a starting combination that brought back memories of the worst of last year's injury troubles. However, the lineup change was not due to injury, but because D'Antoni wanted to reduce Jordan Hill's role in the hopes of helping him to re-capture the magic he had earlier in the year, and to reward Sacre for his fine efforts in practice. Once again, MDA looked like a genius, with Sacre scoring 7 points and pulling down 4 rebounds in the 1st quarter, and Jordan Hill falling just one rebound and three points short of a double double despite playing just 15 minutes.
But yhe hero tonight was Jodie Meeks. Jodie was lights out from distance, scoring his team high tying 19 points on 7-11 shooting, including 5-6 from 3 point territory. He hit two ridiculously big threes down the stretch, one of the shocking variety (on a jab-step step-back jumper) and one that you just knew was going in, a good look resulting from strong ball movement. With Wesley Johnson also turning in a fine performance, Mike D'Antoni has a tough decision (the good kind) regarding who will find their way to the bench when Kobe Bryant returns to the court.
So ends the 2013-2014 era without Kobe Bryant (pending any other injuries, knock on wood). Against all odds, they will be handing their fearless leader a positive record. You could probably count on one hand the number of experts who thought LA would keep their heads above water without Kobe, and if you had told those folks that Pau Gasol wouldn't play very well and Steve Nash wouldn't play much at all, they probably would have withdrawn even that limited amount of optimism. Instead, the Lakers have a better than .500 team with which to add one of the best players in the history of the game. There are no guarantees here; Kobe could not be himself, the team chemistry could be shot by the return of Kobe's gravity shifting force, etc. But one thing is sure: The Los Angeles Lakers are in better position at this exciting point of the season than anybody had any reason to believe they would be.