USA TODAY Sports
The Lakers hung on to defeat the Blazers at home and given how critical every win is to their playoff prospects at this point, it is hard to complain about any time they get a win. Perhaps the best aspect is the team maintaining its mental fortitude in wake of another Dwight Howard injury scare, something they have not done well in the past.
The Lakers' playoff hopes certainly appear more and more difficult every game that Houston and Golden State take from superior opponents, but the cliche that the Lakers can only control what is front of them rings true here. Concentrate on playing better, continuing to apply the necessary effort, and things will fall into place. And if they don't, you can at least feel that you tried your hardest to make it down the stretch. On the subject of effort, the team managed to avoid something that has been a significant problem for them this season by not folding in the wake of an apparent injury to one of their big players, although it helped that Dwight Howard came back and played through an aggravation of his shoulder injury. There have been a lot of games dropped against inferior competition, the biggest example being the Phoenix game on the Grammy road trip, in which the Lakers faltered when confronted with another significant obstacle. While it certainly must be dispiriting for one player after another to drop whenever the team gets into any semblance of a groove -- especially so considering that besides Kobe Bryant, everyone has missed some time this year -- it's something else the Lakers have to push through.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe finally broke out of his shooting slump and had an utterly dominant game but a perusal of the shot chart still tells you volumes of where he is effective nowadays. There is a reason that we see Kobe more and more in the midpost area and bringing the pick-and-roll to a really shallow area to get him as close to the rim as possible. And against Portland, a team with no interior defenders to deter his shot, he can do this again and again with few repercussions. The jab step, shot fake, and midrange jumper routine is nice, but Kobe better serves both himself and his teammates, who invariably get open once Kobe blows past his initial defender and gets into the lane, by blasting towards the rim and scoring with what has become a very effective arsenal, especially a lefty hook shot. On defense, Kobe has continued doing a generally better job than his usual standard this season and him taking charges in consecutive games should be marked in the record books somewhere.
- Dwight Howard -- This is what we want to see from Dwight. Someone further injured him, something that would give him a fair amount of license to slow things down, but he soldiers through it regardless and makes some key plays down the stretch. It shows effort, heart, and hell of a lot of determination, all things we should give him a fair amount of kudos for. He definitely looked a bit limited by it at least initially, but he was able to get his hook shots to go around the basket and deliver on a number of defensive sequences. His post game in particular is something that appears to be coming around, as he is seemingly getting a lot more elevation on his shots, an important aspect for a guy who doesn't operate in the post like Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol does. Of course, this seems paradoxical given that there still are a lot of times in which he fails to sufficiently elevate on plays, the biggest instance being his failure to catch the alley-oop and going upon again only for Victor Claver to wack his shoulder, but it shows how Dwight has had to adjust to his back injury.
- Antawn Jamison -- Don't look now, but Jamison has gotten into a bit of a groove, averaging 12.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on .475/.370/.697 shooting in the month of February. That's pretty good from your primary frontcourt reserve and it displays how much Mike D'Antoni has gotten comfortable using the players on the roster now that everyone except Pau Gasol is back and the rotation is steady. The plays in which Jamison slips the screen are perfectly executed and the guards have gotten very good at finding him when he does so. Jamison could tone down the exuberant threes in semi-transition, but his shot making from that range has been very important for a bench unit that doesn't have guys who can create on their own and need great execution to do so. It is encouraging, however, that they are holding their own for the most part and they will be a very intriguing group once Pau returns.
- Jodie Meeks -- If Meeks had an additional inch or two to his vertical, he might be a star player since he has all the right instincts but not the physical tools to succeed in several aspects of the game. He is a very smart cutter who knows how to navigate his way around the rim and get open, but the gymnastics he has to go through to score around the rim really limit his effectiveness in this area. Still, he had a very efficient game off the bench on a night on which the Lakers needed that kind of performance to make up for the lack of production from their point guards. He also made one of his once in a blue moon smart plays in transition, an arena in which he is usually hopelessly outmatched.
- Metta World Peace -- Although LaMarcus Aldridge missed quite a few shots he normally makes, MWP did a good job of battling him in straight-up post defense, not allowing him to get closer to the rim and navigating him towards the help. This game also gave us a taste of the confounding and inconsistent nature of MWP's current game, as a positively baffling sequence in which he dribbled the ball fruitlessly for half the clock and got a five second call was followed by a steal, score, and and-one in transition. C'est la vie. In any case, MWP's efficacy was mostly helped by him hitting his threes, which really is the bottom line he needs to clear to be effective on offense. Be an efficient shooter and the rest can mostly be pushed under the rug, as MWP maintaining the Lakers spacing is a really important factor of the offense when he is on the floor.
- Honorable mention to Earl Clark, who had a pretty uneventful game aside from dislocating his finger and popping it back in himself (!) shortly afterwards. But in any case, he did his usual things: shot well from midrange, hit the glass, and did a generally solid job on defense. Clark's accuracy from three-point range might be finally regressing back to the norm given his .231 mark in February, but if he ultimately settles around 34-35%, he can still offer a lot of value in this regard. He could help himself by not rushing his shots and limiting himself to threes off the catch when he has space. If a defender comes, use a shot fake and one hard dribble to put up a midrange shot. These are things for the offseason, however, in which we should all be excited for Clark's development.
- Steve Nash -- This had to be one of the worst games in Nash's career from a shooting perspective, as his looks were mostly the same ones he got and nailed in the Boston game. He even missed a technical free throw that is supposed to be automatic for arguably the game's best shooter ever. It didn't help that the entire team decided to have a collective inability to catch and convert the beautiful passes that Nash was whipping through the Portland defense. Dwight in particular got a lot of trips to the line because he wasn't able to quickly score on the passes Nash was giving to him. Otherwise, Nash had a fairly decent game: he was serviceable on defense against Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews and his turnovers were largely a function of the aforementioned butterfingers from various members of the team. Hopefully this was just a bad night, as Nash said that his back seized up early in the game.
- Steve Blake -- As with Nash, this was a rare bad game from Blake, as he had a couple of bad decisions and wayward shooting. The flip side of being a relatively low mistake player is that you don't have a lot of spectacular plays, although he did have a nice block down the stretch of the game. Regardless, D'Antoni appears increasingly comfortable playing Blake at the two for stretches alongside Nash and this is a productive thing for the offense as a whole to have a secondary creator who can also shoot on the wing. This might change if the Lakers consummate their interest in say Raja Bell should he get bought out, but for the roster at hand, it's a smart above altogether.