And as is the usual for this Laker team, they worked the pick-and-roll between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol well and got good bench play from Lamar Odom ... oh, sorry, it's not 2009. But you could have fooled many viewers last night, as the Lakers used an old staple with the Kobe/Pau pick-and-roll against a rock hard Memphis defense and relied on key bench contributions from their reserve forwards Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison to get an added boost to their offense in a low-possession, slow slugfest. Even the negatives followed an old script, as the Lakers got awful point guard play due to Steve Nash's absence and a rare poor game from Steve Blake, who has fallen off a bit since his surprising breakout following his return from injury.
Now, this is not to suggest that the Lakers have necessarily switched systems or anything of the sort: Horns and the high pick-and-roll continue to be the mainstays of the offense and they were run well for the most part, but Pau's return to form is much as we imagined it could at the start of the year as a very serviceable cog in the Lakers attack. The only unfortunate aspect of all of this is as the Lakers as a whole start to gain chemistry with one another, they are missing one of their most dynamic playmakers. Perhaps the ceiling of this team isn't as high as we originally imagined last summer, but the team definitely hasn't had an opportunity to make a game effort at reaching those heights.
- Pau Gasol -- That injury might have been a blessing in disguise for Pau, as he looks miles better on both ends than he did earlier in the year. He's been worked hard summer after summer for Spain with hardly a break and we can probably assume that it's contributed to his knee and foot problems. After all, at the start of the year, we were decrying not necessarily Pau's offense, but his lackluster defense and limited foot speed, both of which appear to be on the upswing. Interestingly, this game didn't feature a lot of Pau in the post against Randolph or his brother and concentrated more on Pau as a midrange shooter off the pick-and-pop and a roll man in the pick-and-roll. Pau's ability to be effective on both roles was why we thought he could be very effective in Mike D'Antoni's system, which puts him in both roles a lot through the regular flow of the offense and Pau seems to be well along in terms of building his comfort level with a style of play he was initially at odds with.
- Earl Clark -- A huge part of the first quarter run the Lakers made was Clark as the catalyst, as he has apparently recovered whatever vibe he had at the start of his Lakers tenure for big shotmaking. We've noted it several times in this column: he makes plenty of plays on defense and rebounds well on both ends, so if he can be effective in the points column on offense, he's well on his way to being a very effective rotation player. He'll be held back from the Odom comparisons until his handle vastly improves, something that should help him a lot by complementing his midrange game, but it's the multifaceted effort he provides that is so valuable for a team that needs glue guys like him. Oh, and that defense he usually provides on a consistent basis was punctuated by a huge block on Quincy Pondexter that probably ranks up there with Shannon Brown's insane foul on Mario West in 2009.
- Kobe Bryant -- This wasn't an efficient game for Kobe (48.5 TS%), but in a grind out contest, he did pretty well, especially considering how gassed he was at the end of the game. He worked the pick-and-roll well for most of the contest and the return of the synergy between him and Pau is a huge boon to the Lakers' offense seeing as it ensures that the Lakers enjoy a healthy flow. The ball sticking anywhere is death in D'Antoni's offense if you're not exploiting a mismatch -- on that subject: Lionel Hollins' bizarre unwillingness to stick Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince in lieu of Quincy Pondexter or Jerryd Bayless was a baffling call that might have cost them the game in the long run -- and Kobe is more than happy to make the pocket pass to Pau, who in turn is always looking for the open man even before his own shot. On another note, Kobe's defense slipped a bit from the previous two games, but he generally competed well and again, that exhaustion factor has to play in.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison missed a few of the shots around the rim he normally makes, likely a side effect of aggravating his wrist injury, but he made up for it by staying effective from behind the arc. He also eased out the in-between shots he's been taking more often lately, a good development seeing that his percentages anywhere other than at the rim or behind the arc have generally been rather poor. Otherwise, he held his own on defense against a Grizzlies team that seems constructed to exploit any frontcourt mismatch, the most notable sequence coming when he forced Zach Randolph into an airball on a straightforward post-up in the first quarter without any help. In the end, he and Clark nearly matched the production of the entire Grizzlies bench, a big contributing factor behind a key victory for the Lakers at home.
- Honorable mention to Dwight Howard, who had a respectable game but wasn't that involved in the offense. The Lakers got better at feeding him from the high post using Pau and they're minimizing straight post-ups for him, a good thing when the latter has been shown this year to not particularly be his greatest strength. He did, however, score against Marc Gasol in some tough straight-up post-ups, an impressive feat considering that Marc is unequivocally one of the game's best defensive centers. Dwight does need to cut the offensive fouls a lot, as they add to the Lakers turnover numbers and limit how long and effective he can be on the court. It's true that he doesn't have the bulk and size to use his rear to clear space as well as Shaquille O'Neal and Andrew Bynum did, but he needs to find a better way to do than moving his elbows around.
- Steve Blake -- It's bizarre to see Blake so turnover prone and especially so on careless pass attempts, something that's usually been exempt from his game. He's just telegraphing passes too easily and it renders him ineffective as a distributor. As we usually say with Nash, it's okay to be turnover prone when a good portion of the time, that pass ends up as a layup or an easy shot; Blake is screwing up on entry passes or just swinging the ball around the perimeter. You want to hope that Blake can return back to his previous level of play, but D'Antoni should keep an open mind about plugging in Chris Duhon or Darius Morris for spot minutes if Blake continues to struggle.
- Jodie Meeks -- So, Meeks has five rebounds, three assists, a crazy layup over Marc Gasol (!!) and four missed threes. Pretty much all of those were wide open too. We've repeated it time and time again: it's fine and dainty for Meeks to do other stuff on the court, but when it really comes down to it, his effectiveness is tied to making shots from behind the arc. Especially in this offense, threes are critical because they create the spacing for everything else to work. Designated shooters have to hit a good chunk of their open jumpers when the offense gets them those shots and Meeks just hasn't been converting them on a consistent basis. He has a cheap contract and that might be enough for the Lakers to keep him in a hypertax year, but don't be surprised if they start looking for a replacement.