USA TODAY Sports
Once again, the results of a difficult road back-to-back went as expected for the Lakers, but the means through which they occurred defied all rational prognosis. If this team has proved anything to us, it is that it simply does not give up.
Should you take any message from the Lakers' last two games, it's that they certainly have quite a lot of gumption, particularly since they left it all out on the court. Twice they rallied back from huge deficits, one falling short because of an elite opponent and another succeeding by virtue of one that was less so. Regardless, the important thing is that this team clearly believes in what they're doing on the court and that is something that we couldn't be sure they had for most of the season. They've dealt with three head coaches all with hugely different philosophies; multiple systems, including one they didn't believe in with the Princeton offense and one that has been changed and tweaked over the course of the year to fit the personnel with Mike D'Antoni's; and a swath of injuries that have mostly robbed the team of the opportunity to develop chemistry. There's a significant gap between this and the championship level of play from a few years ago that they aspire to, but for the team to bring out an effort such as this highlights their changed fortunes in what has been a chaotic season. While their fate is not yet completely in their hands yet, they have at least proven to us that they're willing to give more than a game effort to secure it for themselves.
- Kobe Bryant -- What new praise is left for us to lavish Kobe with nowadays? He carried the Lakers in Oklahoma City, albeit with a bit too much of a gunner's mentality, and followed that up with an utterly sensational performance against the Hornets. Talking heads use this phrase far too often, but to say that he "willed" the Lakers back into the game is completely accurate, the superb defensive effort that Drew excellently covered notwithstanding. 42/7/12 is ridiculous in any context and Kobe did so on the back of an epic fourth quarter performance that was every bit as worthy as his legend. Best of all, he did it on the back of a ferocious assault at the rim, using the gobs of space created by a certain behemoth screen setter to dissect the New Orleans defense over and over again via adept scoring and passing. In comparison, his play in the Thunder game feels meek -- no pun intended -- in comparison, although 30 points on a 63.0 TS% is nothing to sneeze at either and he did plenty to help the Lakers make the game somewhat competitive for stretches.
- Dwight Howard -- As bad as Dwight looked against Oklahoma City, whether it was since he was frazzled due to aggravating his shoulder injury or just half-hearted in his overall effort, he paid it all back with a tour de force on the defensive end that was as critical as Kobe's offensive heroics. His post game does appear to have taken a step back -- although this really doesn't get enough attention: he's playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder; chill a bit -- and his points against New Orleans mostly game via nice feeds from the Lakers guards, meaning Kobe. Still, he shows you his value on offense when he's engaged because his mere presence forces the defense to adapt. As mentioned above, Kobe got a big help from the fact that Dwight was utterly obliterating Kobe's man on a screen nearly every single time and leaving Kobe to take the hapless Robin Lopez off the dribble time and time again. Positioning yourself around the rim and being ready for a feed or a lob is a skill and Dwight did it well against New Orleans. You'd wish that such effort would be forthcoming on a more regular basis, but praise is due where it is due.
- Jodie Meeks -- The third element of the trio that powered the Lakers' Bayou comeback, Meeks also flipped the page from the OKC game and reminded us of why we wanted him on the roster in the first place. He hit important spot-up jumpers down the stretch, played excellent defense on Eric Gordon, including a critical late game turnover, and even converted a tough basket around the rim on a cut. His defense in particular deserves its plaudits, as a day after getting eviscerated by Russell Westbrook, a totally understandable occurrence, he worked his tail off against Gordon, Greivis Vasquez, and the rest of New Orleans' wings. Meeks definitely won't resemble a traditional three-and-D player anytime soon, but his ability to hold his own in the latter element vastly increases his utility down the stretch.
- Steve Nash -- Nash did what we hoped he would do against Oklahoma City when we signed him: he brought pressure against a Thunder defense that had absolutely nothing to fear from his position last season in the playoffs. One wishes this was more forthcoming in the first half when he was missing open shots left and right, but it's a testament to how good he was afterwards that his line reads as well as it does. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case in New Orleans, as he struggled the whole game to be effective offensively and had a panoply of bad matchups on defense against Vasquez and Gordon. Kobe's brilliance relieved him of needing to be a playmaker down the stretch, but one assist, even as pathetic as the Lakers' offense looked early in the game, isn't acceptable.
- Steve Blake -- If you want a reason the Lakers' offensive flow for the most part has improved recently, look no farther than Blake, as the two point guard lineups with him and Nash have become a mainstay for D'Antoni, who needs that flow to make his system work. Blake simply passes the rock well in that context without a lot of errors, which is something sorely needed on a team whose starting guards cough the ball up as frequently as Kobe and Nash do. The bench unit has slowed down in effectiveness a bit recently, more due to the ineffectiveness of others than Blake in particular, and it would be remiss to ask more of Blake offensively than he is currently giving. After all, he is the first backup Laker point guard in recent memory to actually sport a double digit PER.
- Honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who might be making a minor turnaround in his play. He'll still make baffling decisions with the ball, shows little proclivity to pass the rock in any circumstance -- one assist total in the back-to-back -- and will be much too aggressive on defense on occasion, but he's rounding into a tolerable two way player who isn't overly hurting the team. He notably seems to be better as a pick-and-roll defender, hedging more decisively and recovering decently and he's always a threat to strip the ball away if the ballhandler isn't careful navigating the pick. As for his offense, it mostly comes down to him making his threes. The nutty fading to one direction midrange shots that he happens to make are at best gravy and at worst wasted possessions.
- Earl Clark -- Clark hit the proverbial wall in New Orleans and it's a sign overall of him regressing back to the mean. It doesn't mean that he doesn't provide value, but it's clear that he's best when he can occupy a limited role. Spot-up shooting, cutting, and providing versatile defense on the wings are his strengths, not isolations off the dribble, anything in the post other than dunking, and playing center. It's sad since Pau Gasol could really help him in this department by setting him up in his spots on offense and providing a presence in the middle for him to do what he does best on the other end. Still, he kept the Lakers' offense moving in the first half against the Thunder and he'll have a smart or effort-based play every now and then, whether it's skying for a key rebound, making a nice high-low pass, or plain old hustling that reminds you of how he fits. The team just has to get healthy for him to be afforded that opportunity.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison's ridiculous shooting was going to cool off at some point and he's still making headway as a cutter, so that's acceptable, but teams are just wrecking any lineup he occupies that doesn't have Dwight in the middle. A Jamison-Clark frontcourt tandem is a disaster on defense and there simply weren't a whole lot of good matchups for him in either game. Without his shooting to buoy the bench unit, an essential part of their success, they've come back to earth and it's exposed the problems on the other end. As with Clark, Pau's return will hopefully correct this, but the Lakers will have to tread water most times unless they have a good shooting night from their reserves.
- Robert Sacre -- He's not the answer, folks. At least not this year. New Orleans obliterated the lineup containing Sacre on the floor every single time down the court, and while it's definitely not totally on him -- pretty much everything was in shambles then, so to ask the last pick of the draft to change that tide wasn't happening -- he wasn't doing a lot on defense either. Part of it is a lack of consistent playing time to feel out a role, as flashes have given us the impression that he could at one point be one of those end-of-the-bench defensive bigs who comes in, takes charges, and hits a midrange shot once in a blue moon. He's simply not that guy right now and doesn't belong in the rotation.
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