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Despite a setback in Phoenix, the Lakers are still continuing to play a solid brand of ball, and that bodes well for their future prospects.
As much as the Lakers wet the proverbial bed against Phoenix, it does not, as the rampant doom and gloom on various outlets imply, that the Lakers' turnaround is suddenly over. The only poor conclusion they can draw from their recent set of games is that the way they have played -- making the extra pass, working hard on defense, operating under the auspices of a generally solid brand of team ball -- is incorrect and that they need to change their approach. It is not to say that there is a level of refinement and improvement that can be attempted, else we would not be even discussing why they lost to Phoenix, but that the principles that have now started the third or so "new season" are the only way the Lakers can possibly engender any long-term success. And with nothing to play for this year aside a shot at the playoffs due to being bereft of any draft picks, it behooves the team to continue plugging along for as long as it is able.
This noted, the margin for error we keep on bringing up with regards to the Lakers is becoming steadily smaller and smaller. Games against teams like Phoenix on the road aren't ones the Lakers can drop if they desire to make up the gap to get to the eighth seed, as it puts even more impetus on them needing to beat legitimate teams on the road to make up for lost opportunities. As Chris noted after the Phoenix game, the Lakers can't fold and look deflated whenever what appears to be a major injury or something similar occurs -- and come on, there's been a lot of those situations this year -- and they have to just try to deal with another addition to the giant pile of obstacles in their path. No, we haven't reached the point at which losses like these tip the scales towards utter despair, but there's a good deal of weight on that side and that's the reality of what the team is facing right now.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe's solid play against New Orleans gave way quickly to a haphazard performance against Phoenix, as the continual struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other contributed to the terrible execution down the stretch. Part of being a practiced playmaker is that you can make the transition between passer and scorer look seamless and constantly keep the defense guessing as to your intentions. His utterly brilliant play in the OKC game is testament to this, but it was night and day compared to how he was executing in Phoenix. Granted, his teammates had a role in this, as it wasn't like there weren't a bunch of on-point passes in that quarter that were turned into wasted opportunities by poor shot selection or everyone developing Kwame-esque hands at once, but it is incumbent on Kobe so long as he wants to maintain this role as the fulcrum of the offense to manage himself in such a manner. And to his credit, he hit all the right notes after the game by asserting that they had to stay true to the approach they had adopted, so we will hopefully see it played out over the course of this road trip.
- Dwight Howard -- Before exiting the game in Phoenix and causing the Lakers' dramatic slide in the process, Howard had a pair of decent two way games on his part. His lack of rebounding in New Orleans obscures the fact that he was actively disrupting opposing pick-and-rolls and doing his job trying to contest anything near the rim. In fact, it was one of his best performances in terms of the former in a Lakers uniform, as ballhandlers were genuinely flummoxed as he trapped them coming off the screen -- and credit the Lakers' scheme for looking better in this regard as well -- and his five steals weren't accrued on accident. On offense, Howard finally looked more comfortable as a roll man, as his decisiveness setting the screen, slipping away, and moving hard towards the rim has been uneven all year. Hopefully he can overcome another poor card he has been dealt this year and fight through his most recent shoulder injury, as he looked a lot closer to the Dwight we were familiar with from past years than he has for a lot of his tenure on the team.
- Earl Clark -- You might as well label these two games the upside of Clark and the reality that he still has a lot of developing to do respectively, as he delivered a great performance in the New Orleans game before falling back down to earth in Phoenix. For a guy who attacks the rim decently and uses his athleticism well to get to a lot of offensive rebounds, you wish Clark wouldn't fall too much in love with his three-point shot, although him becoming consistent from that area can be a huge boon to the offense overall in D'Antoni's system. His lack of polish on defense also is becoming more visible as D'Antoni tasks him to guard different positions on the floor, as he doesn't traverse screens well and needs to stay more disciplined against shooters on fakes, but he remains very effective on this end. Still, you can't complain much considering that he came out of the ether to solve the Lakers' rotation problems, as his ability to play either forward spot has resolved the major hole in the Lakers' lineups.
- Antawn Jamison -- Others have castigated the move to keep Jamison in at the end of the game against New Orleans better than yours truly can, but we can appreciate what Jamison now offers in the context of the offense the Lakers are trying to implement. By not pigeonholing him as a stretch four, the team has allowed Jamison to experience a lot more success as a cutter and driver in addition to occassional shooter, and this elevates his general utility considering that he's now occupying the more limited reserve role we foresaw for him when the year began. For a guy who comes on the court for fifteen or so minutes, his ability to work off all of the team's major playmakers is valuable. So long as he isn't asked to stay on the court for extended periods, making his poor defense stand out more, he's a perfectly acceptable option.
- Steve Blake -- So, one supposes that D'Antoni's assertion that Blake would look good in his offense wasn't just friendly hyperbole. Although the stats aren't kind to him, Blake looked very decisive probing through the defense in both contests and he achieved this without turning the ball over. His limitations as a scorer are visible whenever he gets near the rim or is in space -- one gets spoiled considering who is ahead of him in the backcourt rotation -- but his decisiveness is a welcome breath of fresh air after dealing with the Chris Duhon and Darius Morris show for the past few months. And his defense is light years ahead of Duhon, as he fights well through screens and generally stays with his man. All of this might be a reproduction of the same effect we had when Blake was relieving another tortuously bad point guard in Derek Fisher, but Blake's "average" right now is what the team needs in the backcourt right now.
- Honorable mention to Pau Gasol, who seems to be acclimating to his bench role very well. In both games, he was the one directing traffic for the bench as they built the lead -- seriously, this is a thing and it defies all logic: Pau and Blake deserve major props for making the Laker reserves look like a cohesive unit -- and acted as the general release valve for the offense with his more celebrated teammates on the floor. Pau's defensive limitations are as glaring as ever, as one can painfully see in his inability to stop Michael Beasley on his game sealing drive in Phoenix, but in the context of the bench and his new role, it is something the team can work around. Getting his own on offense in an efficient manner is his other issue, as he is hamstrung by a bizarre case of inaccuracy at the free throw line. For a guy who has cracked the 80% benchmark in multiple years, this simply has to change.
- Metta World Peace -- Before you decry MWP's number of shot attempts and accuse him of being a black hole among the rest of the passing savants the team has suddenly been turned into, realize that the offense is designed for him to take a lot of those shots since they're the result of multiple passes off kickouts or similar and he's wide open. It really comes down to him making those shots, especially when he acts as a three man in the Lakers' more traditional lineups. Aside from the typical assortment of drives to the rim and incredibly awkward looking post-ups, those are the shots that MWP should be taking. One could make a fair argument that some of those shots could perhaps be distributed to someone like Jodie Meeks, who fills that role of a wing shooter better, but it is to indicate that casting aspersions at MWP for his shot total is, on its face, rather misplaced.
- Steve Nash -- It's all well and good that Nash is allowing Kobe to jump start the team, as this turnaround has as much to do with a change in team culture as it does the specific Xs and Os of their play, but it is important that he not be subsumed into it as merely a subsidiary player. He barely touched the ball down the stretch against Phoenix and while it's not a bad thing to have him as an option out there, it's a waste to not involve him more in the offense. Using him as a glorified shooting guard isn't a bad thing, but run more plays for him to be involved in that facet and his playmaking instincts will be utilized in that context whenever it's appropriate. As much as Kobe has aided in the return of ball movement and general offensive flow, he's not always going to be consistent in that regard, as we saw in the Phoenix game, and it falls upon Nash to pick up the slack for him. This is especially relevant given that we're witnessing Nash getting torched by opposing point guards in isolation, so he really needs to be involved in the offense to justify his time on the court.