After most of a season apart, the Lakers' stars demonstrated their burgeoning chemistry

USA TODAY Sports

As much as it might be disheartening for the Lakers to need superlative efforts to beat two basement dwellers in New Orleans and Portland, the degree to which the Lakers' stars have acquired a degree of synergy on the court is rather endearing for their prospects, dim as they may be.

In the last two games, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard have combined for 161 points on a 68.3 TS%. That's nuts. It is also seemingly divorced from the reality of both games, in which the Lakers struggled to put away a pair of teams near the bottom of the standings and with little to play for at this juncture other than improving their seeding in the lottery. That the Lakers would even require performances of this caliber to put away both teams points to how poor their defense has been and the lack of consistency from a group of role players that has chosen to simultaneously disappear lately. A huge minutes burden and Steve Nash being absent has much to do with this; however, they are problems the Lakers have dealt with all year due to their depth not keeping up with a ridiculous train of injuries and a lack of a cohesive defensive philosophy.

What we can take from these two games is that the Lakers' top players have finally figured out how to play with each other. This isn't a result of a novel approach or Mike D'Antoni pulling something new out of his hat. The Lakers are running high pick-and-roll and Horns as they have for most of the year, with minor tweaks such as Dwight lurking out-of-bounds to give Pau room on the block and the big being willing to drive more from the high post. More important than the structure of the system, however, is the simple fact that this is the healthiest those three have been all year at the same time. The Pau that was benched for Earl Clark doesn't hold a candle to the lateral agility and fluidity of the current one and Dwight is far more comfortable now than he was when struggling with the effects of his back injury every other game.

Since they're healthy, moreover, sharing the court at the same time allows them to fully explore how they can play with one another. It sounds pedantic and obvious, but it's hard to build chemistry when your compatriots are hobbled on the court. We've said multiple times this year that this team has never been afforded the opportunity to really see how everyone meshes with one another and the last two games are just a small taste of what three fantastically talented players can pull off when they are on the same page. True to form for this season, a critical piece in Steve Nash is missing and the poor play from the role players especially dims any optimism for this translating into success in the playoffs, but we can at least appreciate this team getting through the growing pains we thought would be a topic much earlier in the year.

Beast

  • Kobe Bryant -- This was Kobe par excellence as a scorer: unable to be tied down to any one area of the floor and capable of putting the ball in the basket in a myriad of ways. Whether by displaying a first step that he has no thirty-four year old has any right to have to get to the rim, elevating for midrange shots over smaller defenders, capitalizing on his superb footwork in the mid and low post, or simply chucking absurd shots from twenty feet out, he eviscerated more or less anyone who was in front of him these past two days despite playing nearly ninety total minutes on a back-to-back. Sure, the gaudy steal and block numbers obscured a lot of his usual lackadaisical defense, especially checking roll men coming down the lane, but the totality of his performance is awe-inspiring. Nearly half of those 161 points came from Kobe alone on an efficiency that boggles the imagination. Even if this season ends with a whimper, we will certainly be able to enjoy Kobe valiantly fighting to the finish line with every last breath.
  • Pau Gasol -- Again: the Pau earlier in the year was physically incapable of doing what he is pulling off recently. His knees and feet didn't allow him to flow seamlessly from one move to another on the block, nor was he able to sink midrange shots off the dribble after getting into the lane off Horns (!). He still has trouble in help and staying with mobile fours, but his defense is miles better than what is was at the start of the season. This notwithstanding, he has become indispensable to the team in Nash's absence since he's the lone guy on the court who makes it his job to be a playmaker and he acts as a key intermediary between Kobe on the perimeter and more or less everyone on the court. Pau's first read is whether he can throw a lob to Dwight -- the team seems to have revved up the 2-4-5 cheat code plays that seemingly always end in dunks -- or a cutter or shooter, an important facet since it ensures that the team maintains a consistent offensive flow without getting bogged down with Kobe handling the ball or Dwight leveraging his defender in the post.
  • Dwight Howard -- Dwight as a tertiary option and a finisher of plays isn't quite what the team imagined when it brought him aboard, but it is a role he has filled admirably the last two games. A big part of that is Pau's presence: it isn't an accident that Dwight's FG% spikes whenever Pau is on the court. The easiest way for the team to give Dwight buckets is for Pau to look over the defense and throw him a lob as the opposition is trying to figure out what Pau is going to do out of the high post. Defensively, Dwight seems a bit tired recently, only accruing sixteen total rebounds in the last two nights, but his help has been solid and we have been treated to a fair share of highlight reel blocks. Dwight does have to cut down on his turnovers, however, as it's one of the big stains on what has other been two solid offensive performances for the team.
  • Steve Blake -- Blake has really struggled as the full-time point and we were witness to him getting obliterated by rookie wunderkind Damian Lillard for most of the game last night. Still, his numbers weren't terrible, he made a handful of threes, and came up with two huge offensive rebounds down the stretch against Portland. He's understandably been limited to being a sideshow since Kobe and Pau have assumed practically all the playmaking duties, but we perhaps should appreciate that his so-so play is miles better than what the Lakers have featured at the point for a good chunk of the season in Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. That Blake has found a way to be effective despite being utterly marginalized is a very good thing.
  • Honorable mention to Antawn Jamison, who interestingly hasn't been that involved in the recent offensive upsurge. Part of this likely is a result of his bum wrist and the other is that his best playmaker in Pau can't share the frontcourt with him for an extended period lest the defense get shredded. Still, it's odd to see him be invisible on the court for the stretches without getting free for his usual cuts to the rim and Blake's lack of playmaking has likely played a role in this. With everyone looking for Dwight at the rim, Jamison is pushed towards being a spot-up shooter to help maintain spacing and that's not an ideal role for him. Hopefully the offense can get him going as the season concludes, as of the Lakers' role player corps, a good showing from him is likely the factor that could allow the Lakers to steal a game or two.
Burden
  • Jodie Meeks -- Meeks just isn't adequate anymore and his rotation spot is likely only helped by a lack of better options. His three-point shooting has slipped to 36.1%, hardly an appropriate number for the player who was supposed to be the designated sharpshooter on a team with no shortage of open attempts. Without his treys as part of his arsenal, we've been treated to a full view of Meeks' limitations, namely his proclivity for dribbling (badly) to the rim and lackluster defense due to his size. Perhaps it's just a confidence issue with Meeks, but he has precious little time to recover before he'll be asked to perform on a much bigger stage.
  • Earl Clark -- Clark still does a decent job on defense, but for him to be this invisible on offense isn't a great thing. Good role players find ways to be effective even if they don't have plays run for them or have the ball all that often, and Clark's main contribution has been missing threes as a spot-up shooter. Ironically, this is a case in which Jordan Hill would have a lot of utility, as he can manufacture possessions for himself by hitting the offensive boards and this is a path that Clark could take, although it is made more difficult by the limited time he's available at the four. Nevertheless, whether it's by hitting more of his shots from range or displaying some of that cutting ability that has produced good results throughout this year, he has to provide more of a presence.
  • Metta World Peace -- Metta wasn't necessarily bad in his borderline miraculous return from injury, but he didn't have much of an impact either. With Clark, Jamison, and Kobe taking minutes at the three, there wasn't a lot of room for him to contribute and this will likely have to wait until he gets his legs back under him. He did do a decent job checking Lillard down the stretch of the Portland game and forcing him into the teeth of the defense -- although given the absurd tear Lillard was on, it didn't matter a whole lot -- but the Lakers will definitely need him given how porous their perimeter defense is otherwise.
This is part of the "Beast or Burden" series covering recent trends from the Lakers' games. Players who performed well relative to expectations are placed in the "Beast" column and those who did less so are indicated in the "Burden" section. It is intended to be a means of reviewing the team's progress and how individual players are contributing week to week. Read previous columns in this series here.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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