On paper, this was a matchup that seemed to be firmly in the Lakers' favor. Detroit was not yet able to employ the services of Jose Calderon, who had eviscerated the Lakers earlier this year, due to visa issues and the Pistons' best frontcourt in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe was finally one against which the Lakers could employ their Twin Towers without losing too much versatility on either end. The Lakers could limit Detroit's offense into difficult Monroe post-ups and use Dwight Howard's presence to quench the penetration from Detroit's wings. Or that was the plan at any rate considering that little has gone as predicted for the Lakers this season, as without Howard, the Lakers were faced with a rare size deficit in the interior and it showed repeatably as the Pistons took ownership of the paint.
So even though we expect this team as part of its recent turnaround to be capable of beating teams like this on the road decisively, the Lakers are neither deep enough nor sufficiently in tune with their system to be capable of doing so. And right now, that's okay. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash still have to figure out how to play next to one another, the Lakers' bench has to become a more cohesive unit, and Pau Gasol has to bring these kinds of performances when his frontcourt counterpart is also present. Those are acceptable problems to have at this point of the season given the turmoil the Lakers have had to deal with and to get a win without Howard against anyone other than the extreme bottom feeders by a slight margin should brook no complaint from the Lakers at this juncture. Something went their way and for that, we should be thankful.
- Pau Gasol -- We had vintage Pau on several possessions as he juked around an athletic specimen in Drummond and scored regardless, and he seems to have gotten quite good at what is more Kobe's area of expertise in the form of that free throw line fadeaway. Unfortunately, we were also treated to Pau's limitations as a defender as Detroit drove again and again on him without significant resistance and Monroe got the better of him several times in the post. And this is likely to be a recurring theme: Pau returning to form so to speak likely only refers to the offensive end since he is restricted physically from doing the things he was able to do on defense in the past. That's perfectly okay. We no longer expect Pau to anchor the defense and be the second option on a consistent basis since that was the whole purpose of the previous offseason. For Pau, this year was supposed to be all about him slipping back into a supporting role and displaying his magnificent offensive skillset. As a center off the bench who plays around 30 minutes a game, he's shown that he's definitely able to do that and it should be appreciated.
- Earl Clark -- Recently, we were getting to the point where Clark was in danger of having his breakout season somewhat derailed as teams watched the film and started to run him off his spots, but he has made the adjustments to stay effective. He's moving more off the ball to act as a release valve for his midrange game in addition to spotting up behind the arc, and although he didn't do so against Detroit, his shot fake and subsequent drive to the rim in the Minnesota game is a good example of the kinds of things he will have to do to keep defenses on their toes. On the other end, Clark's defensive luster has faded somewhat from his height in his San Antonio welcoming party game, but credit D'Antoni for placing a lot of confidence into Clark at this end, such as when he was switched onto Will Bynum at the end of the game with mixed results. Clark will continue to refine his game at this end, particularly with regards to navigating screens, but the important thing is that he is being granted the freedom to do so. Lastly, hopefully he gets over his end game jitters -- as he did make a bunch of key plays down the stretch last week against New Orleans -- as those missed free throws were not conducive to the health of Laker fans worldwide.
- Steve Nash -- This was more the Nash we wanted to see even under the auspices of a more Kobe-run playmaker system, as he had a much larger presence on the floor and was much more involved in the offense than in past contests. He still had far too many turnovers considering that he's not handling the ball every time down as he did in Phoenix, but we can grant some leeway given how much a lack of continuity has plagued the Lakers this year. Nash also continues to get shredded on defense as it's very difficult for him to have an impact against penetration without someone on the interior giving him help and this was sadly absent without Howard present. Against a team that is going to do most of its damage from the perimeter, you wish Nash could have been hidden on one of Detroit's lesser offensive threats instead of trying and failing to contain Will Bynum on his drives.
- Steve Blake -- You almost can't recognize this version of Blake. For those who saw him languish under the triangle, seeing him run the bench unit adequately and display solid competence at probing the defense -- although he really needs not to second guess himself and take the open layup when it's available as much as it goes against his pass-first instincts -- is rather shocking. It certainly isn't spectacular and Blake's production is never going to do him a lot of favors in the efficiency department, but he doesn't take bad shots -- besides two rather sad layup attempts against Drummond -- doesn't turn the ball over, and keeps the offensive flow going. That's really all you can ask from your backup point guard and while some more dynamism might be necessary in the long-term, Blake is perfectly adequate for the Lakers needs right now. That simply isn't something that we expected coming into the season and bravo for him patching up what we thought would be one of the team's main weaknesses.
- Honorable mention to Antawn Jamison, who continues to do solid work on the offensive end and proceed to get roasted on defense. The clearest sign of Howard's absence is when Jamison was forced to cover Detroit's bigger frontcourt players, which ended about as well as one would expect. This has been the worst part of the parade of injuries, as too many players have been forced into a role beyond their current means this season and although we have gotten some pleasant surprises in the form of Clark, this team's top heavy structure is as we predicted. As far as Jamison is concerned, however, he looks more and more like a natural fit in the free flowing offense the Lakers have been implementing, as he's simply a smart cutter that knows how to get to the basket and fill the empty spaces on the court. When Kobe or Nash are probing the defense, Jamison is the one moving towards the rim or spotting up as a release valve.
- Kobe Bryant -- It's ultimately perfectly fine for Kobe to be either a playmaker for others or for himself so long as he does one of the two well. Combine them and you get spectacular performances such as the one against OKC, but do neither and you get his game against Detroit, in which his inefficiency drags down the rest of the squad. He might be helped by cutting the three out of his arsenal as his early season accuracy appears to be a fluke at this juncture. Kobe has never been especially adept at the long ball and isn't a natural spot-up shooter from behind the arc when receiving the ball from kickouts on drives or post-ups. This behooves Kobe to start getting to the rim more and drawing fouls to bolster his efficiency and we keep on seeing this year, Kobe is at his best when either working close to the rim or off ball for his midrange shots.
- Jodie Meeks -- No one has installed that shock collar on Meeks yet? He would be fine in his role if he wasn't a guaranteed turnover every time he deigns to drive the ball -- although he continues to be an underrated pocket passer off the pick-and-roll and really should do that more instead of trying to take his guy off the dribble -- and it's disconcerting considering that a productive Meeks eases the minute load on the rest of the backcourt rotation. This is a guy that should be taking a higher volume of shots in D'Antoni's offense and he continues to sabotage his own value in an incredibly irritating fashion.
- Metta World Peace -- This was a much more palatable shot amount for Metta, who continues to perplex by making shots off the dribble that he has no right making instead of the spot-up ones behind the arc, but we've dealt with this irreverent take on logic and common sense for long enough with Kobe. Detroit is the team, however, against which the Metta at the four project falls a bit on its face since all the strength in the world doesn't matter if your guy is that much taller than you and just lofts the shot over your arm and nonexistent vertical. It's certainly an approach that is effective against most of the league, but again, Detroit is the rare team with the size to do what the Lakers have done to most of the league since they obtained Pau in 2008: pound the hell out of them on the interior.