This was not supposed to happen. The Lakers, coming off a bad loss to Atlanta on the road and losing Kobe Bryant to a controversial play, would have been totally forgiven if they laid down and took a beating at the hands of one of the league's best defenses and a (sorta) contender in the East. They were down 19-8 near the end of the first and nearly all signs pointed to a blowout, especially without Kobe. So much of what the Lakers had been doing in the past month or so has been predicated off Kobe's playmaking ability, as Steve Nash took a back seat and focused on bringing those 50-40-90 numbers to bear while giving Kobe the lion's share of the ballhandling duties. With his back still not all the way back, Dwight Howard hasn't been the guy you can drop the ball into the post and expect a consistent flow of buckets either, so the Lakers were relying on a nominally unsteady foundation for their offense, especially with Pau Gasol still sitting on the bench recovering from his foot injury.
But it did happen and the unlikely source was the person who has been the whipping boy for Lakers fans, fairly or unfairly, for the past two years in Steve Blake. We have discussed the narrative behind his inexplicable transformation before, the main aspect being Mike D'Antoni's contention that Blake would be a great fit in his offense. This was something most of the Laker faithful rolled their eyes at when considering his lackluster play in a Lakers uniform and what only a few weeks ago was supposed to be a awful contract in both money and years in the Luke Walton mold. Whoops. He only did what two other players in a Lakers uniform have ever done before in compiling 18 points, six rebounds, seven assists, four steals, and two blocks and neither Kobe nor Vlade Divac shot as efficiently as Blake did against Indiana.
Not only did Blake put on a hellacious performance, the rest of the Lakers' role players followed suit. We can present the tired cliches of teams stepping up in the absence of their emotional and playmaking leader, but that's more or less what happened in this case. The Lakers hit their shots, limited an already shaky Indiana offense to a putrid output, and stayed composed down the stretch without the presence of the guy who normally handles the ball in that time. There's not much more to say other than to pray that such efforts stay consistent for the rest of the season and as the Lakers' remaining stars return from injury to form what suddenly looks like a rather nice nine deep rotation.
- Steve Blake -- Blake's performance was so impressive that it catapulted his PER to 12.1, by far his best mark in a Lakers uniform, and his TS% to a career high 56.2. That both appear to be somewhat pedestrian marks tells you how impressive his performance was in context. While it might be too much hyperbole to claim that Blake dominated this game, he sure as hell controlled the offensive flow for the Lakers and made big play after play with his shooting and playmaking ability. Even more than that, however, his quintessential play probably came when he hustled for a loose ball in the fourth quarter, got the deflection back from Dwight, and sank a three-pointer in the corner to give the Lakers a one point lead. It was a nice summation of his grit, effort, and shot making in a key moment. Of course, Blake also brought the effort on the other end, hence the four steals and two blocks, and the Nash/Blake backcourt is emerging as quite the weapon for the Lakers offensively. If you want anything to distinguish D'Antoni from Mike Brown, it's how the former has used Blake as a secondary creator on the wing to great success as versus the abject failure of the latter.
- Antawn Jamison -- Drew's quick workup on Jamison's dagger to seal the game for the Lakers is another good snapshot of what the Lakers' role players provide in a nutshell, as Jamison used his smarts to slip his screen in Horns off a Nash/Dwight pick-and-roll and confuse Indiana's defense long enough to get a wide open three. As with Blake, you see the positive qualities Jamison brings and it mainly revolves around how intelligently he handles himself on offense working off better options on the floor. It helped that this was a good night for Jamison behind the arc, as he did most of his damage from there rather than his usual parade of cuts and slipped screens to the rim and when it came down to it, he made his shots when they counted. Hate to belabor the issue, but how well Jamison has been incorporated into D'Antoni's offense despite a rocky stretch again stands in stark contrast to Brown, especially seeing as the latter was supposedly running a system Jamison had spent five-and-a-half years in Washington working under.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight's offense certainly wasn't pretty at times and one has to give some credit to Roy Hibbert, who has emerged as a very good defensive big despite his offensive output cratering and he's one of the few guys in the league who has the size and strength to give Dwight a good fight on the low block. Dwight ended the night with an awful 45.8 TS%, but he did contribute by putting Indiana's entire frontcourt into foul trouble and constantly pressuring their defense through his rim runs and dives in the pick-and-roll. Naturally, Dwight's main impact came on defense and we can rehash basically every talking point we've been using to describe how good it is. An illuminating mark was Hibbert's 3-12 line that Dwight limited him to and one of those makes was a desperation three-pointer. The only consistent offense that Indy found all night was George Hill jumpers and that's largely since Dwight made the lane a no-fly zone.
- Metta World Peace -- Uh, where did this performance come from? A 19-7-3-2-1 line on a 64.9 TS% along with some fantastic defense on a normally reliable David West would have been a great game for Metta three years ago, let alone now in the midst of an awful stretch of games that seems to doom him to the amnesty axe. And let's mention that defense one more time because West is good: a 20.51 PER player who scores 17.7 points per game and Metta basically erased him from the contest via excellent post defense and denial. It was a vintage Ron Artest defensive performance. Perhaps more surprising than that was a solid offensive game for Metta, as he drove the lane competently, posted up a panoply of smaller defenders on the way to fouls and open stepback jumpers, and hit his threes. The post-ups in particular were important as he revived the Lakers' offense during some dry stretches and finally punished an opposing team for not deigning to guard him.
- Earl Clark -- Clark's star has certainly faded, but this was a respectable role player performance that we can all get behind. He played decent defense at times on Paul George -- aside from expanding his offensive game in the post and learning how to dribble well, the next thing on Clark's offseason list is to figure out how to traverse screens -- and contributed in an efficient manner offensively. Not only did he hit a huge three-pointer with six minutes left to give the Lakers a three-point lead, he also didn't turn the ball over and make significant mistakes, including a nice dime to Blake in the second quarter off a drive into the high post from the wing. Perhaps Clark never returns to the heights he reached earlier in the year, but him learning how to be an effective role player, especially with one of the team's playmakers absent in Kobe, was a welcome sight.
- Honorable mention to Robert Sacre since, hell, why not. He only had a short cameo, but he didn't kill the team while he was on the floor, hit a nice jumper on the baseline that he should perfect for the sake of his career's longevity, and supported the team with his usual bench theatrics. It's been a while since the Lakers have had a bench warmer to which Lakers fans hold almost unequivocally good feelings towards and yours truly is definitely rooting for Sacre to develop enough to earn a 5-10 minute role in the rotation at some point down the road. After all, if he can do that and be the league's best bench cheerleader, methinks the team will be more than happy to have him aboard.
- Kobe Bryant -- It was a valiant effort, certainly, but ultimately for naught. Kobe's inhuman pain tolerance and ability to recover from injury is legend, although perhaps we should credit him for realizing that it wasn't in the cards and excusing himself from a contest in which he had no part in. He certainly deserves props for his "Coach Kobe" segment and apparently calling out screen roll coverages -- which raises the point of why on earth he can't follow his own advice when he's on the floor -- and at this point, the team would be best served by having him rest. Many of you will remember Kobe's injury and subsequent rest in 2010 rejuvenated him for the championship run that year, and while the Lakers aren't going into the playoffs with those kinds of expectations, it can only benefit the team to have a more energetic and healthy Kobe coming back.
- Steve Nash -- Nash has a decent caveat in that he had a calf injury that he was dealing with during the game, which makes his fourth quarter performance all the more impressive, although the stretches in-between were tough on him. His overall numbers were poor by his standards (50.8 TS%), but the worst thing about his night was George Hill obliterating him on the other end, notably since it was Indiana's only consistent source of offense. To a certain extent, the Lakers could handle it because it was limiting the Pacers' offense to midrange stuff and basically every other option was ineffective, but it showed Nash's limitations on a night on which Kobe wasn't there to help him out by cross matching.