Too many times this season, the Los Angeles Lakers have picked the wrong time, against the wrong team, to have a poor performance in one aspect or another. They've played terrible defense against poor scoring outfits. They pick games against bad defenses to turn the ball over 20 times. They play good games against better teams, and bad games against worse teams, and very rarely has anybody played poorly against them. Make no mistake, there have been times in which the Lakers have looked stunningly poor. But, at least as often as they have looked like an abject disaster, the Lakers have been the unfortunate recipients of the worst kind of basketball luck. The biggest reason why the Lakers have fallen prey to that luck? They so often fail to take advantage of their opponent's weaknesses.
Take the Chicago Bulls, for example. Chicago is a good team, with the best defensive coach in the league. But, with Derrick Rose missing the entire season to date, Kyle Korver plying his trade in Atlanta, and even Kirk Hinrich riding the pine, what the Bulls aren't is a team with a coherent offensive plan. That's why they rank 28th in the league in scoring, 23rd in offensive efficiency. This is a team that struggles to score points, plain and simple. So, if ever there were a team against whom a mediocre defensive team could be rewarded for strong defensive effort, this would be that team.
Well, the Lakers finally seem to be getting the message. Instead of slacking off defensively against a team that normally struggles to score points, the Lakers, led by Dwight Howard, worked hard on defense, and the result was a 90-81 contest that was not as close as the final score would indicate. For large swaths of this game, the Bulls had nowhere to go for points. Their offense consisted primarily of Nate Robinson pull up jumpers, Joakim Noah 20 footers, and Carlos Boozer getting stripped by Metta World Peace. The net result? 81 points allowed, which is the first time the Lakers have achieved that kind of defensive domination since November.
And here's the thing: they needed it. Because the offense took a bit of a dive. Mostly behind the less than austere efforts of Metta World Peace (6-16, 0-6 3FG) and Earl Clark (5-13, 1-5 3FG), the Lakers shot poorly from all areas of the floor: 45.3% overall, 19.2% from downtown (on 26 attempts!), and just 7-14 from the free throw line. The Lakers struggled mightily to score against the Bulls, as tends to happen. And yet, they still won the game easily because they made life just as hard on their opponents.
It was the stars who carried the Lakers, and Dwight Howard takes the game ball in this one. 16 points on 8-14 shooting (though he missed all five of his free throws), but Dwight dominated the glass with 21 rebounds, he patrolled the paint to the tune of 4 blocks, and perhaps most impressively, he picked up his third foul halfway through the 2nd quarter and played another 3 minutes before the coach took him out. Dwight has been responsible for some colossally stupid fouls in similar situations this season, so for Mike D'Antoni to trust Howard to play without picking up another foul, and for Dwight to reward that trust, is an important development for the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant wasn't quite the superb player he's been the past week, but he wasn't that far from it. He only scored 19 points, but he only took 16 shots, and he also dropped 9 dimes, pulled down seven boards, and had a scant (for him, at least) 2 turnovers. And Steve Nash chipped in 16 points on 9 shots, including ten of the first 14 3rd quarter points as the Lakers built a 16 point lead that was never truly threatened.
A strong defensive effort against a team that already struggles to score points. Not getting punished for a bad shooting night because they made things even more difficult for their opponent. These are the types of occurrences that simply have not happened for the Los Angeles Lakers this year. If they can learn how to take advantage of their opponent's weaknesses, they might just be able to get into that 8th playoff spot after all.
Oh wait, they already did that.