When the Lakers were constructing the foundation for what was supposed to be a championship contender, this was along the lines of what they were envisioning. Dwight Howard dominating the defensive end and dunking everything thrown his way around the rim -- and missing all of his free throws. Kobe Bryant playing an all-around game and largely staying within the confines of the offense. Steve Nash spacing the floor, making plays in the pick-and-roll, and taking over from time to time, as he did in the third quarter last night. And lastly, the Lakers' role players hitting just enough shots and making just enough plays to put the team over the top. This certainly is not the end of the team's development, seeing that there are more than plenty of things to clean up with their execution, especially when Pau Gasol returns, but that the team is far, far closer to the image we conjured of this squad last August is especially endearing. It is a huge departure from the depths this team has fallen to this season as a result of a coaching change, injuries, and general malaise and one cannot deny the wave of upward momentum they are currently riding.
- Dwight Howard -- Unsurprisingly, the team's momentum correlates pretty well with Dwight starting to perform much better, as he starts to resemble Orlando Dwight more and more with each passing game. He's owning the defensive boards, stepping out on pick-and-rolls, and deterring attempts at the rim whenever someone gets into the lane. The team has also gotten better at turning his rock solid screens into points for him, as Mike D'Antoni mixed some 1-2 and 2-1 pick-and-roll along with a Dwight screen with an option for him to slip and catch a pass at the rim, which tends to happen when both Kobe and Nash are involved in any given play. Generally, his game around the rim has also improved as he's converting his opportunities when he gets it in deep post position and the Lakers are doing a much better job at finding him for easy opportunities than they have in the past.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe's efficiency finally fell -- a mediocre 51.0 TS% -- but he more than made for it in other areas. His proclivity for distributing the rock from the last few games didn't abate, particularly via the aforementioned passing to Dwight around the rim but also in finding open shooters around the arc. Naturally, he was deprived of a good number of dimes since the Lakers' three-point shooting was awful for most of the day, although the sentiment is important in that regard. He also brought a lot more than his usual ball-watching and lazy defense, working through screens against Marco Belinelli, a player who is only ever going to get his points with the benefit of screens or otherwise.
- Steve Nash -- That third quarter was what we thought Nash could do on a more regular basis: take any available space off the pick-and-roll and dominate the game with ease. And he did so, as Dwight's screens gave him wide open jumpers in the middle of the floor between Dwight's pick flummoxing Nash's defender and the big staying back to guard against Dwight's roll. How well the Lakers are executing within the pick-and-roll is a fair method of evaluating how the team is doing as a whole and the course of the fourth quarter, during which the Lakers picked on a hapless Carlos Boozer over and over again due to his lackluster coverage, was a great example of it working out well.
- Metta World Peace -- The rare bad shooting game that MWP makes up for via solid and impactful defense, as he absolutely flummoxed Carlos Boozer the entire game. MWP's sole weakness in post defense are guys who can shoot over him since you're not moving him when he bends his knees but he isn't elevating to contest your shot either. It's also difficult to dribble around him to get better position because exposing the ball to MWP's lightning hands is usually a bad proposition. So for Boozer, MWP might as well have been his kryptonite and MWP did a solid job preventing him from getting deep post position -- the only spot he could conceivably score on him -- all night. On offense, MWP had a bizarre night in which he was 6-10 inside the arc, including several nice drives and finishes at the rim, but couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from behind the arc.
- Honorable mention to Steve Blake, who only took one shot -- a bad fadeaway with the clock going down after he picked up his dribble and no one bothered to give him a release valve -- but otherwise did a great job managing the offense, finding players for easy shots around the rim without committing major mistakes. He simply looks in his natural abode keeping his dribble probing into the defense and waiting for players to get open while spotting up on the perimeter in other circumstances. We thought at least one of the trio of Darius Morris, Chris Duhon, and Blake would emerge as a serviceable backup and while Blake's previous history pointed against him breaking out as that option, he has proven many of the prognosticators, yours truly included, wrong in this regard.
- Earl Clark -- Most of Clark's problems can be traced to the fact that he has absolutely no moves around the basket and a poor handle, especially under pressure. When doing anything besides finishing at the rim on a cut or hitting a spot-up jumper, he simply looks confused and out of sorts. It's very akin to a rookie for whom teams now have tape and proper scouting reports on and are forcing them out of his comfort zone, hence the proverbial "rookie wall." We've talked a lot about how Pau's absence has hurt Clark between the latter having to play at center and taking on more offensive responsibilities, but Clark was still having solid games with the bench unit regardless. He needs a smaller role to be effective and D'Antoni cutting his minutes recently is a reflection of that. On another note, this wasn't a particularly good game for Clark defensively, as he simply lacks the strength to check Boozer or impede the likes of Luol Deng on his drives to the rim.
- Antawn Jamison -- The primary difference between Clark and Jamison is that regardless of who he is playing with, Jamison largely sticks with the things that are going to work. Of course, this is only true of the Jamison of this year, as Cleveland and Washington fans will tell you of Jamison's predilection for long twos, but Jamison is largely focusing on two areas on offense: spotting up for threes and cutting to the rim. He and Blake appear to have a particular affinity for one another in the latter aspect, as both have great timing on when to slip the screen and send the pocket pass for him to catch respectively. Jamison's night was mostly marred by bad shooting from behind the arc and general ineffectiveness on defense, although compared to other nights on which he's been a liability on that end, his effort was acceptable.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Jodie Meeks, who was a missed jumper or two away from a good night. Against a Chicago team that wasn't going to take advantage of him on the block as Toronto did, Meeks looked very good defensively, as he competes, dives for 50-50 balls, and all the other things you want from a backup guard who can play serviceable defense. Still, as mentioned, Meeks' performances on offense usually come down to whether he can make shots, as he's invariably open and almost never asked to put the ball on the floor unless he does so of his own volition.