Don't lie: you all thought that the Lakers were done after the first quarter. Their offensive flow wasn't bad, but they couldn't stop the Kings in any aspect whatsoever on defense, an unsurprising development considering that the Lakers' best perimeter defender in Metta World Peace was absent. The Kings, usually a doormat in the conference, had the league's best offense since the All-Star break, and the Lakers were in no position to do much to deter that attack. Without MWP, the Lakers have precisely one plus defender in Dwight Howard and a defensive lineup typified by apathy (Kobe Bryant), a lack of size (Jodie Meeks), and limited mobility (Pau Gasol). And even Dwight, after showing that he had been on an upward trend in his recovery from back surgery, was not yet at the dominant level he displayed in Orlando to avert...whoops.
That's essentially the story of the game. We got Orlando Dwight in amazing fashion and he utterly dominated this game. His activity was unreal on both ends, blowing up pick-and-rolls on defense and utilizing some absurd pogo stick athleticism to get putbacks on offense. The sequence in which he tracked down an offensive rebound in the corner by more or less outrunning his competition, dribbled back to the rim, and hit Earl Clark with a deft interior pass for a dunk was the cherry on top of a fantastic performance. This was a night on which Kobe Bryant surpassed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list and nearly notched a triple double and Pau Gasol returned to his old passing form with twelve assists, but they feel like mere afterthoughts compared to what Dwight did. Give a ton of credit to Dwight: whatever animus he engendered earlier in the year seems as if it's being blown away game by game and as pointed out here previously, the notion he's somehow not deserving of a max contract sounds more and more ridiculous.
- Dwight Howard -- The numbers upon first examination aren't necessarily spectacular for Dwight -- 24 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks; quite a statement when that feels like a normal line from Dwight -- but he much more of an indelible impression than any of his games this year that looked better in the box score. He was simply everywhere on the court and as Chris pointed out, this is a Dwight Howard that can single-handedly make a defense look respectable. No matter what other pieces are on the team, porous perimeter defense and a lack of athleticism regardless, he is simply that much of a difference maker. This year has been mostly about Dwight's limitations, especially on offense as versus a more refined post player in Andrew Bynum, but Saturday night was an emphatic show of why he deserves to be the game's best center.
- Kobe Bryant -- The "Kobe is a warrior" line has been repeated and borne out so often throughout his career that playing through aggravated bone spurs as he did on Saturday night appears routine. It was a marked shift, however, from what he usually does in this situation: shoot until he gets back into rhythm. Instead, he dominated the game how his backcourt compatriot in Steve Nash would do: through deft passing off the pick-and-roll and drives to the rim. Best of all? He compiled fourteen assists against only one turnover, a statistic that looks more and more ridiculous when you think about it. It was the rare performance for Kobe in which he controlled the game without scoring, perhaps a necessary development given that Mike D'Antoni lined him up at point guard for a fair chunk of the game. In so doing, Kobe, at least for this game, mastered the dynamic of taking what the defense was giving to him, something that has bedeviled him all season.
- Pau Gasol -- It's not a coincidence that when the Lakers run a fair portion of their offense through Horns and allow Pau to make a lot of decisions with the ball, good things tend to happen. But beyond dishing the ball to shooters and hitting cutters near the rim, the Kings game also saw the return of the 4-5 pick-and-roll, which really should be a bigger part of the Lakers' arsenal. If you ask the four man to work over a screen and the center to figure out who to stay with, mistakes are going to happen and Pau is invariably going to get an open midrange shot or an easy lob pass to Dwight. It's one of the few elements of last year's offense that worked well and it applies even more so this year given that Dwight needs a bit more help to create around the rim than Bynum did. That Pau's midrange shot also looked a bit better aids in all of the aforementioned things, although he could show more of a presence on the defensive glass, as the Kings got way too many offensive rebounds for comfort with a Dwight/Pau frontcourt out there.
- Steve Blake -- Stepping in for Nash, Blake wasn't asked to be much of a distributor given that Kobe played essentially the entire game, but he did a solid job echoing Nash at least as far as his shooting was concerned. His shot selection this game was also a lot more circumspect, losing a lot of the stepback jumpers in favor of catch-and-shoot threes. In a game in which most of the playmaking responsibilities were taken by Kobe and Pau, it was the proper role for Blake to take and he more than fulfilled it adequately. Hopefully Nash's return and Kobe not being asked to play every minute will allow him to showcase the playmaking that has made him such a valuable backup since his return from injury, but for the moment, Blake was certainly effective.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks' size limits him too much to be a starter, even if his defense is otherwise sound for the most part. It's definitely a contrast to Sasha Vujacic, the last backup wing good enough to move Kobe a position up to small forward in certain lineups, as Sasha was big for a two guard and could check smaller threes as well. This noted, Meeks is using a weapon that Sasha never incorporated into his game in the form of his cutting, as he hit both of his shot attempts inside the arc in this manner and the team is getting better at incorporating it into the overall game plan. It's also a nice way for Meeks to see his shots go into the basket considering how much of a slump he's been in recently from behind the arc. This combined approach allows him to still retain his effectiveness, putting up a 64.3 TS% overall against Sacramento and that's along the lines of the shooting numbers he'll have to put up to be a solid part of the rotation.
- Earl Clark -- This is the kind of performance one can get comfortable with from Clark: so-so shooting numbers but good defense and positive contributions all around. He's clearly not the guy who kicked off his newfound playing time with a huge performances -- although injury and conditioning could be playing a role in that -- but he's also proven that he can be a consistent member of the rotation. On a team devoid of athleticism besides Dwight, he's probably the team's most impactful perimeter defender with MWP out and while he didn't do a great job of curtailing Tyreke Evans' penetration, he's hell of a lot better than the alternatives. The biggest upside, however, is that he's likely depressed his price in free agency to something more manageable for the luxury tax and 2014 cap space conscious Lakers.
- Honorable mention to Antawn Jamison, who didn't have a good game shooting, but did a good job helping the Lakers to sustain their offense in the third quarter. A big part of this was his offensive rebounding, which has become an underrated part of his game recently even if the stats don't necessarily reflect that -- a forgettable 7.5 offensive rebound rate. Altogether, he's put together a pretty solid March: 10.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game on .472/.400/.667 shooting. That's more akin to the shooting we thought he could bring forth by bringing forth a minor facsimile of his Sixth Man of the Year season in Dallas and he's doing it in a very efficient fashion.
- The rare game in which basically everyone did well after the disaster of a first quarter, which you could basically pin on the whole team. Whether the offensive flow and defensive discipline they displayed after that is something that is lasting is something to look for, especially in a critical matchup against Dallas tomorrow.