USA TODAY Sports
As the Lakers decisively beat the Celtics to commemorate Dr. Buss' passing, the trade deadline has now confirmed that no drastic moves will be made this year. Thankfully, the Lakers also displayed surprising drive and competence in the Boston game that hopefully will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The moment Pau Gasol went down with a foot injury, any speculation around the trade deadline for the Lakers evaporated, as any Dwight Howard scenario was always a long shot and the Lakers simply have no other assets. And in any case, what the Lakers really need is for everyone to get healthy. The only remaining hole on the roster is at the three now that Metta World Peace's brief resurgence as a legitimate offensive threat has sadly ended and he no longer has the physical tools to be as effective on defense as he was two years ago. The solution is for Earl Clark, who might as well count as a deadline acquisition for the Lakers' purposes given how he came out of nowhere to salvage what remains of the Lakers' season, to take more of his minutes, but that requires that someone in the Lakers' depleted frontcourt rotation become healthy.
So barring an acquisition at the buyout deadline -- why else do you think the Lakers have a roster spot open? -- the Lakers are essentially waiting for Pau to return from his injury and set the Lakers' rotation right. We have had enough proof to say that this team looks great if they collective heads are screwed on and both the effort and execution are present. There were a lot of beautiful sequences throughout the Boston game that work against basically anyone. It just requires Dwight Howard setting bone crushing screens, Steve Nash being on his game, and the wings making the right pass or shot if they receive the ball off the kick out. The Lakers more or less blasted the Nash/Howard pick-and-roll down the throat of an elite pick-and-roll defense composed of one of the league's best point guard defenders (Avery Bradley) and hedging bigs (Kevin Garnett). If they can do that here, they can do it against most anyone and it requires a level of focus the Lakers have only shown in spurts this year.
- Dwight Howard -- Welcome to the Lakers, dominant Dwight Howard. Haven't seen you that much. At least on offense, this was Orlando Dwight in a nutshell, as he obliterated people on screens, rolled hard to the rim, and was an inexorable force next to the rim on offensive rebounds and in seizing deep post position. The offense more or less works once Dwight gives his ballhandler a ton of space on the pick-and-roll as the defense falls apart trying to keep up with all the rotations necessary to account for the breakdown. If anything, the Lakers need to do a better job of rewarding Dwight since he worked his rear off running to the rim to claim deep post position, although you can count the number of guys on the team who can throw good entry passes over a fronting defender on one hand. On defense, Dwight wasn't quite Orlando Dwight in terms of blowing up pick-and-rolls, but he was active, disrupted the ballhandler, and made his way back to the roll man adeptly. It was more than enough to be a plus defender in that aspect, as well as his usual spectacular block on the weak side sort of thing. If this Dwight shows up for the rest of the year, he'll gain back a lot of the cachet he's lost going into what will be a momentous offseason for the club's future.
- Antwan Jamison -- Time and time again, Jamison would bail out a wayward Kobe Bryant drive by positioning himself in the right spot to receive a pass near the rim that he would invariably convert. It's a sign of a smart offensive player that adapts to the personnel on the roster and Jamison knows where he needs to be to be effective on this squad. Major kudos for him also catching the pass when he got Nash the dime he needed to pass Magic on the all-time chart too. Whenever one of your reserves finishes with 15 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes and plays respectable defense, it's a really good day for your team.
- Steve Blake -- When we began the season, the ceiling for Blake was somewhere around "please don't kill us." Same thing applied to the rest of the stable of backup point guards to the extent that it would be a rather significant fear of a big offensive letdown whenever Nash left the game. Well, Blake's ceiling has suddenly been revised to "solid contributor" as he looks great out there. It all starts with his ability to probe the defense, keep his dribble active, and never stop looking for opportunities. Heck, he had multiple cases in the Boston game in which he was practically indistinguishable from Nash, the sick behind-the-back pass from the top of the key to a cutting Meeks the highlight of the bunch. Against teams that he can get away with it, D'Antoni should really try to find more minutes for Blake at the two as he can; playing your playmakers as much as possible should be a key objective.
- Steve Nash -- The entire offense could more or less be Dwight setting a screen and Nash shooting considering that his man is about five feet behind him and occasionally nursing the feeling of running into a wall. However much of his speed and athleticism has been consigned to the pages of history, Nash is still going to be amazingly effective if you give him that much space to operate with as the defense has to honor the entire panoply of options available when Nash is open with a live dribble. And outside of pick-and-roll action, no one of the team comes remotely close to Nash in terms of throwing entry passes, as he defeated Boston's fronting defense on Dwight time and time again by placing it only where Dwight could get the pass. A guard like Kobe needs to track the ball like a wide receiver and move to catch it, but Dwight has a huge radius with which he can catch and score. If anything can save this season, Nash and Dwight developing synergy is at the top of the list.
- Honorable mention to Earl Clark, who seems determined to pile on more and more evidence that he isn't a fluke. Although his offense was inconsistent from time to time, between getting blocked at the rim and missing all of his three-point attempts, Clark's effort on the boards was Jordan Hill-esque and a big part of the Lakers' rebounding advantage. He's especially good at leveraging his height and vertical on the defensive boards, as he got quite a few against a Boston offense that was unusually active on the offensive boards for a team that normally eschews it. It's a sign of his consistent effort and ultimately the thing that makes him valuable on the court, as he guarded both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce fairly adeptly. His offensive game also shows signs of development, best evinced by when he added a nice shot fake to his arsenal and blew past his defender to get to the rim.
- Kobe Bryant -- This three-point slump might be just a slump, but it's rather unconscionable for Kobe to chuck up four attempts when it's clearly a problem. Between that and the turnovers, Kobe was stopped from an otherwise highly effective game, as he brought the effort on defense, including him taking a charge in help, a practically unthinkable thing for Kobe nowadays. He was solid off the ball on offense and his seven dimes were par for the course for Kobe nowadays, but again, it's a matter of Kobe minimizing his mistakes. He doesn't have to be Chris Paul since that simply isn't who Kobe is, but as Jeff Van Gundy, who has grown leaps and bounds as an analyst without the cliche-filled influence of Marc Jackson, ably noted, it is all about achieving a proper balance between scoring and distributing. We might be setting an unreasonable standard for Kobe to adapt to what amounts to an entirely new playstyle without some hiccups along the way in the form of wayward shots and passes, but he has shown that this balance is something he knows and grasps this season.
- Metta World Peace -- Part of it was hot shooting to be sure, but if MWP can't disrupt a Paul Pierce that is basically relying entirely on old man tricks at this point of his career, then there isn't a lot of defensive efficacy left in the tank. Lightning-quick hands and tremendous strength mean little if you're allowing Pierce to blow past you by trying to play him close with lateral quickness that you don't have anymore. This would be okay if MWP was doing decently on offense, but on a night on which the ball was flowing well, MWP is a black hole that doesn't make decisions quickly, decides to throw up bad shots, and generally isn't conducive to overall offensive flow. There's not a lot of optimism for him recovering his value at this point and what awaits him in the offseason is almost definitely the amnesty axe.