The Lakers played out their brief road back-to-back in line with expectations, winning against Dallas and losing a tough game against Denver. Although each game is precious from this point on, the Lakers played well enough that one can still have confidence in them moving forward.
The last few games have been typified by Kobe scoring explosions, but more than anything, it has been a testament to the team's fortitude. Whatever other problems the team has been encountering, they are finally managing to deal with them as a unit. It has no doubt helped that Mike D'Antoni has settled on an eight man rotation and one should not discount the value of players having consistent roles and responsibilities night after night. Earlier in the season, the Lakers would have gotten much more flustered against an epic performance by a star player like Dirk Nowitzki or Denver's relentless transition attack. Yet in these cases, the team overcame foul trouble to Dwight Howard and largely kept the deficit to a manageable level respectively. Naturally, we still return to the theme we keep on hammering time and time again: consistency. Effort, execution, and urgency. It may sound horribly cliched after receiving the same diagnosis in nearly every item of Laker analysis, but that's the reality of their situation. They're running the same plays as earlier in the year, just with more pep nowadays, and that has to continue.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe's performance in Dallas was positively epic, but it may have unduly affected him at least initially in Denver. An early 1-7 shooting mark and some horrific defense, among the worst Kobe has played all year -- which is saying something, considering that Kobe has had some really putrid displays on this end -- heavily contributed to the deficit that the Lakers would fail to overcome for the rest of the game. Kobe eventually fought his way back to a very respectable line by doing what he has been most effective at all year: getting to the rim. The moment Kobe gets into the lane, it's terribly difficult to stop him, between the footwork and array of shots, and Kobe continues to torment smaller guards who deign to guard him. Of course, it didn't matter a whole lot who was covering him in Dallas, as Kobe hit practically everything from long range, but it was good to see him making the necessary adjustments when the same approach was not working in Denver. At any rate, 38/12/7 and 29/6/9 on consecutive nights is pretty ridiculous and it reminds us of the ridiculous season Kobe is having at his age.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight couldn't get it going offensively in either game and his wayward free throw shooting hurt the Lakers significantly against Denver, but he sure as hell worked his rear off on defense to make up for it. This was the bare minimum we envisioned when we acquired Dwight: a guy that at the very least, was going to be a defensive difference maker even on his off nights. He controlled the board and deterred penetration, although the effect of the latter item was often neutered by the poor rotations of compatriots. On offense, it's all about effort for Dwight: if he sets hard screens, rim runs every time, and rolls decisively, he's going to get opportunities to score and he mostly took advantage of this aside from all the missed free throws.
- Steve Nash -- Nash is steadily taking more of the shooting burden now that Pau Gasol isn't present to eat possessions away from other less desirable options, and frankly, if he gets a good enough screen, he should shoot every time. His line against Dallas is something that could be easily repeated so long as Dwight and others are freeing him up on every pick-and-roll. It is true that a lot of guys on the team also depend on Nash to deliver them the ball in optimal spots to get their own offense, but Nash taking shots away from them usually is a good thing and it tends to result in opportunities opening up for them as well. Against Denver, Nash was probably one of the many affected by fatigue, as he had as poor of a passing game as one can remember him ever going through; he was outright missing people on rolls or cuts and Denver was converting these into transition opportunities. A certain level of turnovers are always going to be expected when you're dealing with Nash and his brand of passing, but a performance such as this came against the worst possible opponent.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison has made a lot of timely shots for a bench unit that frequently looks feckless. Of any player on the team, he appears to have benefited the most from a consistent role, as one could copy and paste in the same descriptions of his game week after week. He'll get a few buckets slipping the screen expertly, spotting up behind the arc, and on drives to the rim with a post-up mixed in every now and then. His defensive limitations will be exposed every now and then, but the Lakers have gotten better at hiding him and aside from help responsibilities, Jamison competes well.
- Jodie Meeks -- Speaking about guys who are becoming more consistent, Meeks is more and more falling into this category, everything he does inside the arc notwithstanding. For the most part, however, his shot chart looks exactly how you want it to look: practically every attempt not in transition is a trey or a long two and Meeks is converting them. We often underrate what a proper distribution of roles does as it allows the offensive system to stabilize and for chemistry to develop. We expected the spot-up shooters to benefit from the Lakers' stars and D'Antoni's system and this is seeing fruit.
- Honorable mention to Steve Blake, whose stewardship over the bench unit has hit a rough stretch relative to the high standard he has set in previous games. His line in either contest wasn't necessarily bad, but his aggressiveness off the pick-and-roll has tapered off a bit. At his most effective, Blake was borderline Nash-esque: constantly probing and looking for opportunities. On the plus side, Blake continues to keep the turnovers down, a helpful result of his passivity, but this system is designed for point guards to constantly test the defense. We shouldn't be getting too ahead of ourselves and overemphasize Blake's talents, but his comfort in D'Antoni's system has been well on show since his return.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta had an excellent game by his recent standards against Denver, but the offensive zero he threw up against Dallas left quite the poor taste in our mouths. Practically everything he did on offense was at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive and he spent most of the game getting roasted by Vince Carter on the other end. Granted, he had a few good defensive sequences against Dirk, who was about as white hot as when he torched the Lakers in 2011, but his defensive utility is compromised by a lot of boneheaded decisions. He usually plays guys who want to drive too close or those who want to shoot too far away, a sign he hasn't adapted to his decreased lateral quickness. There is no doubt that Metta still has a lot of tools to be an effective defender -- the league is littered with decent defenders with far fewer tools who get by through mastery of fundamentals -- but you can't try to run out at Andre Miller at the three-point line, for instance. As mentioned, his offensive game in Denver was generally pretty good as he took advantage of Denver's panoply of smaller wings in the post, although his tunnel vision gets really aggravating when he misses a wide open Dwight Howard in the paint over and over again.
- Earl Clark -- Clark is hitting the proverbial wall as he plays out of position at the five and has had to deal with a myriad number of injuries. It's fairly clear what he is at this point: a good pick-and-pop partner, spot-up shooter, and cutter. You can't ask him to take a guy in the post because he simply has no idea what to do with the ball when he gets there, even against a smaller defender and his attempts to put the ball on the floor generally end with disaster. When he can work off others, Clark is perfectly serviceable, but this might have to wait for Pau's return to see results on this. It is also hard to evaluate Clark's defensive performance given how many responsibilities are hoisted on him as a really undersized five who can't protect the rim from a ton of guys penetrating from the perimeter since the Lakers' perimeter defense isn't doing anything to stop them. Ironically, covering players in isolation is one of Clark's strengths, so the Lakers' deficiency at the center position is doubly hurting their overall defense in this regard.