So, was this the team we were expecting back in August? It lacks an important element in Steve Nash to be sure, but there were plenty of sequences in which the Lakers' top three in Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol appeared as if they had been sharing the court for a lot longer than the time this season has afforded them. All three submitted solid two-way performances and surprise, surprise, the Lakers are very hard to beat when the top of their rotation is playing this well. And this isn't the result of Mike D'Antoni implementing anything particularly novel lately: the team is running Horns time and time again and spacing the floor off the high pick-and-roll. It's the same thing that D'Antoni has run whenever the team has been mostly healthy, only Kobe is the ballhandler in this case instead of Nash.
That the schematic issues are not at fault points largely to how injuries have soured the season. Early season Pau isn't able to play solid defense on Dirk and be that nimble in the post. We've thoroughly covered Dwight's remarkable recovery into something more resembling his previous self than the flat-footed version that started the year. Kobe's superhuman and doesn't really fit into this paradigm, given that he was on crutches all of two games ago and has played practically every minute of the last two games, but his approach has also helped the team. While the offense will occasionally slip into stagnation with him pounding the ball too much, Kobe as a distributor off the high pick-and-roll or in Horns essentially got the Lakers open shots the entire game because the alternative was to yield the lane to Kobe. A multifaceted team whose major contributors complement each other, are good playmakers, and can't all be fully shut down is an image that has only been realized a precious few times this season.
- Kobe Bryant -- As mentioned, the only downside to a fully Kobe-run offense is that it will bog down from time to time when Kobe sizes up a defender in isolation and pounds the ball for a possession as he is wont to do. That's not necessarily a bad thing in a lot of cases, but he needs to cut out the hot potato passes to his teammates with the clock ticking down. He's the bailout guy that is supposed to a create something out of nothing, not Jodie Meeks, Pau Gasol, or more or less, anyone else on the team. Aside from this, Kobe had a downright brilliant game: 23-11-11-4-2 is a ridiculous line no matter how you parse it and Kobe also reciprocated on the defensive end, making solid rotations and playing good man-to-man coverage. The sequence in which he was switched onto Dirk Nowitzki, stole the entry pass, and went the other way to get fouled was typical of his defensive effort all night. Although the heavy minute load can't continue and you hope Nash comes back, it's a smart move by D'Antoni to leave Kobe at the point when Steve Blake leaves the floor since not only does it induce Kobe to exert effort covering the opponent's primary ballhandler, he also switches into his playmaking mode on offense.
- Dwight Howard -- That these are becoming routine games for Dwight at this point is a great sign of his recovery since dominant performances from him earlier in the year were more often than not followed by relative letdowns, a reflection of his lack of conditioning then. And while Dallas didn't really have anyone to stop him on the low block, it's nice to see more consistency from him on the block and the more fluid post moves outnumber the times he appears that his attempt is merely chucking the ball at the rim. Lastly, major props to him for blowing apart Dallas' last chance to get into the game by converting his free throw attempts during the latest Hack-a-Dwight session. If anything, he appears more comfortable when a team singles him out and puts him at the line. On another note, since Pau has returned to the starting lineup, Dwight has shot 39-64 (60.9%) from the field and just a casual examination definitely shows that he's getting easier looks at the rim with a playmaker in the high post to help feed him.
- Earl Clark -- Hello seemingly dominant Clark, haven't seen you in a while. The biggest difference from his previously tepid player for much of the last month, however, was mostly that he was nailing his open jumpers from midrange and behind the arc. If he does that, he becomes tremendously valuable because he contributes in a lot of other categories, with energy and defense being the chief aspects. Arguably the biggest sequence of the game was when he collected an offensive rebound off a Kobe miss, made the bucket and one, and then scored a three when his missed rebound was corralled and found its way to him behind the arc. Dallas had shaved the lead to five and Clark more or less put and end to that single-handedly. He also played defense about as good as you conceivably can on Dirk, as aside from biting on a few too many shot fakes, he made Dirk outright miss the rim on a few attempts. In sum, we always need some of the Lakers' role players to step up for the team to be successful and Clark more or less fulfilled that quota on his lonesome.
- Pau Gasol -- An increasing trend is Pau getting his shots closer to the rim, a welcome development seeing that his post game appears to be making a bit of a comeback. Dwight will clear space by standing out-of-bounds -- which also makes it easier for him to slip in and get offensive rebounds -- and give Pau his turn on the block, where he took advantage of Dallas' smaller fours all game. He's perhaps not as quick as he was at the start of his Lakers' tenure, but so long as the arsenal of post hooks and shot fakes are there, he can still be very effective. And of course, the Lakers benefited from his passing, as he was another in a long line of Lakers this game to have an impact in multiple parts of the game with a 14-10-6 line. That's the Pau we thought we were getting with this group: a tertiary option who set up everyone else and feasted on the fact that he's the last guy on the totem pole teams chose to guard. Finally, Pau also uncorked a solid defensive performance on Dirk, quite a departure from the slow-footed and lackluster ones that have characterized his defense for most of the year.
- Antawn Jamison -- What made this performance from the team more surprising was that Jamison, normally a key participant in the Lakers' better efforts this year, was practically a non-factor. As pointed out above, Clark made up for this and then some, but Jamison usually finds ways to stay effective and that wasn't the case last night. Dallas did a decent job running him off the line and contesting his jumpers and it never seemed that he was in any particularly good rhythm. Considering that he was also checking his former UNC teammate Vince Carter for a fair chunk of the game, that his overall impact was negative goes without saying. On a night on which the Lakers won by 20 and only played a seven man rotation, Jamison was the only player to not finish with a positive +/-.
- Jodie Meeks -- Stop. Dribbling. The only time Meeks should ever think of venturing inside the arc with the ball in his hands is to take one hard dribble to avoid a player flying at him for the contest and even then, he's usually so open that this isn't a concern. It's unfortunate that this is a problem since otherwise, Meeks had a rare good all-around game with six rebounds and three dimes, rare contributions for a specialist with a very limited role. Unfortunately, it doesn't make up for the turnovers and the missed shots, the latter of which is especially unfortunate given how many open looks he got all night.
- Steve Blake -- An uncharacteristic game for Blake, as he was rather careless with the ball and was coughing it up against ball pressure. This is especially the case given that Kobe is playing essentially the entire game and as a result, Blake's ballhandling responsibilities are especially limited. On the flip side, he did make his shots and his defense against Dallas' underwhelming point guard rotation was respectable, but it's hard to overlook four turnovers given the aforementioned context. It's certainly a testament to how the expectations have gone up for Blake this season that this is such a pronounced issue though.