Behind a stupendous defensive effort, the Lakers earned their way into the postseason

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On the final game of the season, the Lakers left everything on the court as Dwight Howard said they would and it earned them a second life on the biggest stage.

It certainly wasn't pretty and the grind-out style the Lakers have been running is incredibly antithetical to what Mike D'Antoni has prized throughout his career. But in the end, it was effective and the Lakers from the start of the fourth quarter onwards put on a defensive clinic against Houston's isoball and completely shut down the interior behind Dwight Howard's monstrous performance. This in and of itself is impressive: we knew upon coming into the year that a full strength Dwight was such a game changer on defense that the surrounding pieces would be somewhat immaterial. Thankfully, the rest of the squad has also responded in Kobe Bryant's absence with some stellar help rotations; the team down the stretch was entirely unrecognizable from the lackluster unit we have seen most of the year. The prayer three from Chandler Parsons to tie the game and sent it to overtime was only made after the Lakers completely blew up Houston's play and forced Houston to recover the ball a few feet behind the arc.

On the flip side, the team does have to reciprocate on the offensive end and that hasn't produced pretty results thus far. Steve Blake is having by far his best moments in a Laker uniform, but the team really needs Steve Nash's consistent shooting and playmaking to change their fortunes on offense. It isn't necessarily the Nash who makes spectacular plays that is required -- although certainly not unwelcome -- but the one that gets the Lakers in their sets, spaces the floor, and maintains the team's offensive flow. What gets lost is that Nash does a lot of the little things for the team; for instance, he is by far the Lakers' best entry passer, a critical skill given how much of the offense will run through their bigs in the post. Right now, the Lakers have one consistent playmaker in Pau Gasol and having Nash in the backcourt to complement him will tremendously help the Lakers recover a lot of their mojo on that end.

All of this probably won't change the Lakers' fortunes too much this postseason, but as Chris noted, the Lakers are playing with house money right now. We're just here to enjoy the ride and revel in the newfound chemistry and identity the Lakers are finally able to bring to the forefront. It might not be very dignified by the standards the Lakers have set for themselves, but after a bona fide season from hell, Laker fans deserve to take solace in just appreciating the team in front of them.

Beast

  • Dwight Howard -- This was Dwight in a nutshell on defense. Freakishly fast rotations, unbelievable lateral agility in his recovery time, and the hops to obliterate attempts in the air. His coverage of James Harden coming into the lane was a great example of this, as he just erased his drives multiple times through taking the ball away and denying him clean attempts at the rim. Perhaps the most quintessential sequence, however, was when Dwight missed a shot on offense and sprinted full court in transition defense to the other end to trap Jeremy Lin under the basket, strip the ball from him, and have it bounce off his leg to get the possession back. As much as Dwight does with his hops on defense, he gets a ton out of his feet and hands and that's at the core of a guy who resembled the game's best defensive player last night. Of course, all of this salivating over his defense obscures that he didn't have a great game on offense. Omer Asik was a big reason for that, but mostly, Dwight has no one on the team who can consistently give him good entry passes other than Pau. It's yet another reason Nash's return would be a great thing for the team's prospects.
  • Pau Gasol -- It's pretty impressive when you put up a line only one Laker in history has ever managed to put up. Yes, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can claim to have a 15-20-10 line or better in the box score and it points not only to how outrageously skilled Pau is, but the degree to which he's recovered from his injuries earlier in the year. This Pau was able to stay on the floor when Houston went small and played Carlos Delfino on the floor without hurting the Lakers defensively, and of course, the merits of Pau on offense have been well-established at this juncture. As noted above, it might be partly since Pau is the team's only remaining playmaker that he looked especially good in comparison to everyone else, but it is undeniable that he will be the fulcrum through which the Lakers' offense flows in the playoffs.
  • Steve Blake -- Holy cow, Steve Blake. Anyone who has watched him the past two years in a Lakers uniform would rightfully express abject shock that he had these kinds of games in him. Although Blake cooled off as the game went on, he still put up a 24-7-7 line with only one turnover as the team's lead guard, which is nuts. One can accept the relative inefficiency when everyone didn't look good and the grind-out contest it devolved into. Blake, moreover, was rock solid on defense, checking everyone from Lin to Parsons and one can easily imagine him as the two guard next to Nash in the starting lineup. It's a pace that he probably can't keep up, but we can safely say that all of Mike D'Antoni's excitement earlier in the year on coaching Blake was entirely justified.
  • Darius Morris -- Again, Morris is the team's best perimeter defensive player with the exception of Metta World Peace and it's not close. His lateral agility alone makes him peerless in this category. Not a lot of guys can play chest-to-chest defense against James Harden with any measure of success and Morris did a pretty good job. Really, the only thing keeping Morris from a bigger role is his complete lack of offensive instincts, his Rajon Rondo impersonation on an open layup right next to the rim being the most prominent example. In this context, his minor scoring explosion -- by his standards -- was especially surprising, as his last bucket was off a good turning the corner on the pick-and-roll and launching the wide open jumper. If Morris can hit that along with catch-and-shoot threes, he'll have enough offensive utility to deserve minutes. He's about to get quite the test by fire to see if that's the case.
  • Antawn Jamison -- Jamison's defense was so good down the stretch of this game that one struggles with the plausibility of such a thing. Him matching Parsons for the entire duration of a drive in overtime and leading him straight into Pau for an easy block just isn't something he does. Of course, this made him tremendously valuable, as he was the lone figure of efficiency on offense for a team that struggled as a whole on that end. His timing didn't manifest in the cuts he normally utilized, but in timely offensive rebounds, as he got a lot of buckets from wayward shots that way. It was part of a complete effort in which the Lakers crushed the offensive boards in a manner much more familiar to watchers of the team used to a massive frontline exerting its will on the other team.
  • Metta World Peace -- In fact, Jamison was so good that he forced Metta to the bench even with Harden still on the floor and shockingly, Metta probably wasn't the best defender Harden saw all night. Still, Metta's versatility on defense will be very valuable in the playoffs and one hopes his offensive game picks up as it did in Kobe's previous absence this year. Without Nash and Kobe, Metta is probably the guy most likely to get you a somewhat decent shot when he takes guys off the dribble, albeit only in very specific circumstances. This noted, he invariably is going to find the strength matchups he encounters almost every game and just bully guys in the deep post and Pau did a good job of finding him in those areas.
  • Honorable mention to Jodie Meeks, who couldn't hit a shot to save his life but played his heart out on defense and was really trying all night. Harden hit some tough shots over him to start the game but Meeks otherwise did a solid job for the rest of the night. Thankfully for Meeks, he managed to see his effort translate in big ways, such as when he caught the pass from Blake near the end of regulation to avoid a turnover and of course, his stunning dunk over Harden in overtime to help clinch the game. As with the rest of the team, his rotations were top notch, running to and fro to close out on shooters, but he really needs to find his shot again in the playoffs to ensure that he retains his rotation minutes.
Burden
  • Earl Clark -- Again, a game in which Clark more or less disappeared in. With both Jamison and Metta doing fairly well, this is perhaps something to be expected, but Clark has to find ways to distinguish himself. We know he's a decent cutter, can act as a release valve in the high post for midrange shots, plays good defense, and has decent rebounding games, but not a lot of those things have become manifest recently. That he plays almost exclusively on the wing is a big adjustment for him to be sure and in D'Antoni's offense, it's one that puts him much more in the role of a spot-up shooter. This notwithstanding, the Lakers need a lot of their role players to come up big in this series and Clark first arrived this year with a huge game against these Spurs.
  • Andrew Goudelock -- So, that was quite the inauspicious debut for Goudelock, who didn't exactly acquit himself well. His floater has apparently been expanded to 18 foot range, but as with a lot of guys on this team, he has to make shots to earn minutes. This is especially the case for Goudelock, a guy who isn't great on defense or setting his teammates up. Perhaps things would become a bit easier if he was just asked to be a spot-up shooter instead of creating off the dribble, but Nash's return is almost certain to consign him to the end of the bench in the playoffs.
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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