Without their leading man, the Lakers' supporting actors responded well

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In their first game after Kobe Bryant's injury, the Lakers responded in a positive manner with an energetic defensive effort against the Spurs and a solid show from the Lakers' corps of previously struggling role players.

As has been widely noted in the wake of Kobe Bryant's injury, the team had two paths to take: they could wilt without their fearless leader and give in for the rest of a lost season, or come together with greater cohesiveness and increase their effort down the stretch. Thankfully, they chose the latter path and even though the Spurs played a remarkably poor game, Tony Parker in particular, the Lakers did what they needed to do in order to eke out a victory over a very good team. Even if everyone wasn't on the same page defensively, you had people aggressively running out on shooters and doing their best in help responsibilities, things that have definitely not been very consistent this year. And even as the absence of Steve Nash and Kobe were felt on offense as the Lakers tried an awkward, post-up heavy system, the Lakers' role players stepped up and responded to expectations. It probably doesn't change the calculus of this season or their eventual fate, but for once, the moral victory in the team finally looking like a team is one we can take comfort in despite the sour taste from Kobe's absence.

Beast

  • Dwight Howard -- This was a bona fide superstar game from Dwight, who went straight against Tim Duncan, a possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season, and did hell of a job. The Lakers made Dwight the featured option on the block and he was successful to the point that the Spurs eventually just sent hard doubles every time he touched the ball, to which he made nice passes to find shooters and outlets in the high post. And even though the Hack-a-Dwight was moderately effective in helping the Spurs to get back in the game, Dwight eventually evened out to the point that it was a losing proposition. Finally, he brought his A-game on defense, nabbing eleven defensive rebounds, two steals, and three blocks. It was a worthy performance of the guy who asserted his leadership role in Kobe's absence and the animus towards Dwight from earlier in the year appears to be totally extinguished.
  • Steve Blake -- My goodness, Steve Blake, what a performance. He eventually cooled down as the game went on and had some turnover problems, but this was a superlative performance from a guy who has had his ups and downs this. Whenever he got space off the pick-and-roll he was aggressively looking for his shot behind the arc or probing the defense for an available pass recipient. It was evocative of the Blake that came back from injury and it's further proof that for some point guards, Mike D'Antoni's offense is like steroids. On defense, moreover, Blake did a solid job staying in front of his man and providing great effort even when taking the majority of the ballhandling responsibilities on the other end.
  • Antawn Jamison -- Jamison's arsenal around the rim has been sadly depleted due to his wrist, with his only consistent weapon there now being easy layups more or less, but he reciprocated in a big way from behind the arc. At the start of the fourth quarter with the game tied, Jamison hit three critical treys to give the Lakers a lead they would never relinquish. That's essentially what the Lakers need from their role players now: the occasional flash-in-a-pan performance that comes from increased responsibilities and it helps that Jamison is a guy who has dealt with having a significant burden on him for most of his career. His defense was more tolerable this game than in the Golden State contest, although he did lose Matt Bonner behind the arc a few times through poor pick-and-roll coverage.
  • Darius Morris -- We basically could copy over Morris' summary from his game against the Spurs under Bernie Bickerstaff and put it here, as although he was a zero on offense, he demonstrated that he was by far the Lakers' defender at the point of attack. Simply, no one else on the team has the lateral agility to run through screens, the size to bother opposing point guards, and enough discipline not to bite on every fake, although he is susceptible to the last item now and then. This all would make him highly useful if his shooting wasn't such a disaster, with multiple balls hitting the backboard or missing the rim outright. Morris hasn't quite shed his instincts from college yet, moreover, as his most frequent reaction after having space cleared in front of him by a pick is to simply look for a guy on the wing. It's like a quarterback who is bad diagnosing a play when the first option is covered, although Morris does have a decent excuse of not playing for a while.
  • Honorable mention to Pau Gasol, who had a brutal shooting night but was a big factor on defense. This was probably the most active we've seen Pau this season in terms of his help responsibilities, as he did a great job checking Duncan and recovering to him in pick-and-roll coverage. He practically matched Dwight's stats in this regard too, accruing eleven defensive boards, one steal, and three blocks. Altogether, it's the kind of combined performance we want to see from a frontcourt that has an overweening size advantage on most nights and we saw it actualized in a rare occurrence last night. Pau's shown too much since his return from injury for these numbers on offense to not be a blip, so hopefully he combines this defensive effort with more of what we had seen in previous games on the other end.
Burden
  • Earl Clark -- This was quite the marked contrast from Clark's breakout game against the Spurs in San Antonio, as he was largely ineffective offensively. To his credit, he did have a number of good sequences creating off the dribble, a callback to his days at Louisville, but it's hard to deal with his lack of production on that end. He did make up some of this ground with generally solid defense, and it's hard for him to be asked to produce with the offensive system (again) adjusting to the loss of a key player. Still, other guys on the team had key moments throughout the game on either end and that was mostly absent for Clark.
  • Jodie Meeks -- Meeks was a complete zero on offense before the fourth quarter, when he hit two big threes and along with Jamison, was a key figure in acquiring the Lakers' lead. In fact, most of the game felt like a comedy show devoted to Meeks' foibles, namely his complete inability to finish at the rim and constant botching of transition attempts. This noted, he did bring his game on defense, running well through screens and staying with shooters, although Manu Ginobili's absence certainly helped in this regard. It's inevitable that Meeks is going to have to handle some ballhandling responsibilities with Kobe out, a somewhat terrifying prospect to be sure, and it's incumbent on him to find ways to be effective. A lot of what Blake does on the pick-and-roll when he searches for his shot could be valuable for Meeks, especially when Dwight clears a huge amount of space off just about anyone.
  • Chris Duhon -- Yeah, this why Duhon doesn't play and Mike D'Antoni was unwilling to stretch his rotation. In less than four minutes, he coughed the ball up three times, most on well-telegraphed passes. Even if you excuse some of this with the same excuse with Morris in that he hasn't been playing for a while, it's an unacceptable performance with no upside like Morris' defense. One wonders whether D'Antoni will experiment a little with the newly signed Andrew Goudelock once he gets a practice under his belt, as while the latter might not be used to the Lakers' offense, he definitely has the skill set to be more effective on offense than what Duhon has displayed. At the very least, he probably deserves the opportunity.
  • (Dis)honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who couldn't find his shot from behind the arc but had one of the game's unequivocally best moments by uncorking a huge dunk over Duncan. Weirdly, nearly all of MWP's success came within the arc, as he found his way to the rim and even got a bucket on a midrange pull-up jumper that we would normally associate with Kobe. MWP otherwise had a decent game on defense, doing a fair job checking Kawhi Leonard. Historically, MWP has stepped up his offensive game when given more freedom without Kobe, as we saw earlier in the year when Kobe missed a few games, and one hopes that as MWP gets more of his legs back under him while recovering from his injury, he can respond as he did back then.
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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