Too often this season have the Lakers been done in by their own mistakes and more often than not, their own stupidity, but last night truly took the cake. Their third quarter "performance" wasn't a result of just missing shots or going cold at the worst time, but a long and protracted exercise in how poorly you could execute an offense in the NBA. Time and time again, the Lakers made the wrong pass, didn't shoot when open, or did something else inexplicable that led to a Phoenix transition opportunity in which they invariably scored. The Lakers had the Phoenix offense bottled up in most every other respect and their defensive effort in the halfcourt was actually rather respectable, but they decided to provide Phoenix with the only way they could conceivably beat them time and time again through a brainless application of basketball. Way too many games have been lost this year to moments such as these and it's not an endearing thought that this is the chief item in our minds as we go forward.
And of course, it's especially troubling that the primary culprit was Kobe Bryant, who had by far his worst game this entire year. It's absolutely true that Kobe bears an enormous burden for making sure that things are running smoothly given Steve Nash's age and Pau Gasol's injury. That noted, right after a sublime performance that kept the Lakers afloat in Miami, he more or less decided to see how badly he could reciprocate at home against Phoenix. For better or worse, the team runs off Kobe's play now, whether he's running the high pick-and-roll to get to the rim, analyzing the defense from the midpost, or acting as a secondary creator on the wing because he's the only guy on the team who can consistently create for others. And last night, you could count the number of positive plays he had in the second half on one hand. Kobe is certainly entitled to a bad game every now and then, but the way he went about this one was infuriating. You can try to be a "facilitator" and get others involved. It shouldn't make you inept at basketball in the process. Hopefully this is just a one time thing.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight had his foibles last night, notably the sheer depression evoked by the fact that an ancient Jermaine O'Neal was scoring on him, but he was definitely trying out there. By the fourth quarter, he was gassed as he was moving up and down the court, but that was mainly caused by the fact that he was running hard for deep post position on a lot of possessions, setting good screens for the ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll, and cleaning up the glass on defense. We can understand Dwight not looking at full strength in several aspects, whether in pick-and-roll defense or how awkward his post game gets once he's more than six feet away from the basket. The bottom line, however, is that he should be leaving his heart out there on the floor and he definitely did that last night. Kudos to him.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison bailed out the Lakers so many times down the stretch that yours truly lost count, as he hit the offensive glass like Jordan Hill and converted a lot of misses from the Lakers' perimeter players. He also scored in all of his usual ways, as he's gotten much more comfortable at chucking up quick threes off the catch in semi-transition even with defenders in a reasonably close space next to him and the Lakers' ballhandlers found him again and again on cuts to the rim. As bad as his defense usually is -- as he had a number of decent defensive sequences this game -- he continues to produce in a very intelligent way on offense and his experience shows in that regard. On a night on which the Lakers looked feckless for long stretches, Jamison's smart play stood out.
- Metta World Peace -- MWP's shooting was still wayward -- seriously, he should be fined whenever he fades away in one direction or another on his jumpers; Nash and Kobe can do that because they're awesome and can get away with it, while MWP definitely can't -- but he produced in other areas as the Lakers built their lead earlier in the game. A liability in pick-and-roll coverage earlier in the year, MWP has gotten better at figuring out how to use his hands to impact the ballhandler and strip the ball away, especially against a rather sluggish halfcourt offense like Phoenix's, and this led to a lot of loose balls. Of course, this also meant a bunch of "can't avert your eyes from the train wreck" attempts to score in transition, but the important thing was that he was having an impact on defense, something that has been missing for a while. His efficiency left a lot to be desired (47.86 TS%), but this was a case of the little things making up for it.
- Steve Nash -- This is your reminder that having Nash as your guy handling the ball down the stretch -- as the team smartly phased Kobe almost entirely out of the offense during that period -- is a pretty awesome thing as he and Dwight ran some textbook pick-and-roll sets for dunks and Nash otherwise closed the game with a masterful use of misdirection (and a nice push-off) for the final bucket. He otherwise held his own on defense as well, as the Lakers' aforementioned halfcourt effort was mostly fine, and his former backup in Goran Dragic had an awful night. So long as Nash doesn't have to guard on an island, he's decent as a team defender and he's gotten better at navigating pick-and-rolls now that he's aware that the hedge usually isn't coming when Dwight is on the floor.
- Steve Blake -- Where has this Blake been in previous years? Can we port him back to 2011 and try that year over again? He's right behind Earl Clark in the surprise column since we expected the primary point guard backup to be a "least of all evils" kind of selection as Blake beat out a declining veteran who supposedly could barely handle the ball (Chris Duhon) and a very young second year guard who had a miserable rookie year (Darius Morris). The surprise in this case is that not only were Duhon and Morris both better than we thought they can be, Blake has beat both of them out regardless. He finds cutters adeptly, especially Jamison, with whom he's developing a similar kind of synergy that he previously had with Matt Barnes, and doesn't make major mistakes. Heck, he even hit a patented Kobe fadeaway from the elbow with the clock moving down and no one coming to relieve him of the ball. Combine this with some serviceable defense and this is probably the best we've seen of him in a Lakers uniform.
- Honorable mention to Jodie Meeks, who had one of the game's biggest buckets with a ridiculous prayer from the hip around the basket as the Lakers took control of the game in the fourth quarter. It salvaged an otherwise rough shooting game for Meeks, who was shooting a lot more contested threes off the dribble than he is accustomed to, something due to the Lakers' lackluster offense flow outside of various stretches in the first half of the game. He also continues to do a decent job defensively, although Phoenix didn't have a lot of players at his position who were big offensive stalwarts.
- Kobe Bryant -- It's definitely a broken record at this point: that there is a "choice" between being a scorer and being a playmaker is a false dichotomy. You simply play the game and take what the defense gives you. If you're driving to the rim and there is a lane, especially for someone as supremely talented as Kobe Bryant, you try to score instead of forcing a pass to your covered big on the weak side that the defender doesn't want to leave for the very same reason Kobe wants to pass him the ball. Again, that this happened one game removed from a consummate Kobe performance in which both scoring and playmaking were seamlessly incorporated is maddening. For Kobe to look like a bastardization of the worst excesses of Rajon Rondo on the court is something that simply can't happen. Heck, one would prefer the Kobe who looks for his own shots and doesn't care a whit for his teammates than this version, as least we know that that Kobe is ultimately benefiting his team. After an admittedly excellent first quarter in which Kobe was definitely aiding the overall offensive flow, he never adjusted to a Phoenix defense that must have been dumbfounded that they were playing Kobe for the pass and not a shot. That Kobe, scorer extraordinaire, couldn't slip back into the role he was born to fill from that point forward is beyond explanation.
- Earl Clark -- This was one of Clark's rougher games and it's a testament to how our expectations have changed that we consider it so. This partly is due to the fact that he had to cover Jermaine O'Neal, someone clearly out of Clark's weight class, in the low post, but his defense on Phoenix's wings such as Michael Beasley wasn't great either. Although Clark does fine against most players in isolation or straight-up post defense, he has trouble trailing players through screens and this definitely was apparent when he wasn't defending the low post. He had more success on offense, as he continues to figure out how to use his myriad skills in conjunction with one another. More and more, he'll use the threat of his jumper to drive to the rim, something O'Neal found difficult to guard, and he's also steadily figuring out how to make good interior passes to his frontcourt counterpart, which is usually Howard. He needs to settle down from time to time and get his feet set when he catches the ball for his midrange shots or dribbles into them -- one thing he could benefit from is a single hard dribble away from his defender before going up, as most guys aren't going to bother his shot at his height -- but it was still a more or less effective game on offense.