I guess it helps to have your second-best player on the court.
As always, let's start with the disclaimer: It is way too soon to start making any definite proclamations. A six-game streak of total dominance, in which the Lakers appear to have resolved many of their classic issues, is not enough to guarantee that this recent trend will continue.
That said, it can't be denied that this recent stretch of dominance is noteworthy and significant. So while we won't make any assumptions yet, it goes without saying (though that won't prevent me from saying it) that the Lakers' recent play has been very encouraging, and a very good sign.
Let's review, shall we?
Think back to the various stages of the "Lakers as Champions" project: last year's regular season performance, their early playoff "struggles," their battle against Denver and swift victory over Orlando, and their early season ups and downs as defending champions. Along the way, what weaknesses come to mind that we've seen from this team?
I'm guessing that for most of you, the answer is more or less some version of the same thing — and it has been true not just here or there, before or after, but throughout the entire process. That answer, in a variety of forms, boils down to this: lack of sustained focus.
That one Laker weakness, fairly consistent over the last 13 months, encapsulates every other correct answer. Lack of defensive intensity, lack of commitment to playing at full potential, frustrating tendency to play down to their opponents' level, inability (or unwillingness) to put lesser teams in their place, struggles to finish games and/or series — all of these things come down to a lack of sustained focus.
The key word here is "sustained." After all, these Lakers did win the NBA Championship, and that was due in large part to their ability to focus for stretches, when necessary. But when that need was less felt — in games against markedly inferior teams and in series they were heavy favorites to win — that focus was often lacking.
The result was most evident in a disturbing Lakers tendency to "struggle" against lesser teams. And I'm not talking about the Mavs or the Jazz; I'm talking about the Bobcats and the Clippers. It wasn't that the Lakers often lost to such teams (well, okay, so the Bobcats owned them; but I'm talking about teams like the Bobcats, in general). It was simply that too often, against these teams, the Lakers won by single digits. Too often, they built good sized leads and then let the worst teams in the leagues mount comebacks.
Simply put, the Lakers should have been dominating these teams, putting them in their place, building double-digit leads, and winning easily in blowouts. But they weren't doing what they were supposed to, and too often these wins were not at all easy.
If their recent stretch of utter dominance is any indication, it may be that the Lakers are maturing, finally overcoming their frustrating tendencies to underperform in less-than-critical situations. In six games against significantly inferior competition, the Lakers have racked up six straight blowouts, and they've done so without even breaking a sweat.
Even more thrilling is how they're doing it: with defense. In fact, as Forum Blue & Gold points out, the Lakers offense has been just okay, while their defense has been excellent.
Currently, the Lakers are ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency — which all SS&R regulars should recognize as opponents' points per 100 possessions, and the best measure of a team's overall defensive performance — with a rating of 96.5 (another way of saying that opponents are scoring 0.97 points per possession).
The numbers over the last 6 games are even more impressive. Not once in the last five games have the Lakers allowed 1.00 point per possession. Their overall defensive efficiency rating for the last 6 games is an unbelievable 92.7. For reference, the best defensive team for the entire year so far has been Charlotte, with a defensive rating of 95.3 — a full 2.6 points per 100 possessions higher than the Lakers mark over the last 6 games.
The Lakers also rank first overall for the entire season in opponents' field goal percentage (a statistic considered important by defensive masters like Gregg Popovich), with teams shooting 42.0% from the field against the Lakers.
For the taco lovers out there, the Lakers held their opponents below 100 points in all six games, while also scoring over 100 points themselves all six times. For the Ron Artest skeptics, I'm thinking that Ron Ron should probably get a good bit of credit for the Lakers' newfound defensive prowess.
Not that the Lakers have been that bad offensively. In this 6-game stretch, they posted an offensive efficiency rating of 108.1 points per 100 possessions. Though their overall season rating is nearly four points per 100 possessions lower than that, a 108.1 rating extended over the course of the entire season to date would be good for the fourth best offense in the NBA.
Meanwhile, that frustrating tendency to let bad teams back into games has been missing, of late. In their last six games, the Lakers have quickly and easily built huge leads — but unlike in days, weeks, and months past, they have also gone on to finish the game in blowout fashion. They have won these games by an average of 18 points per game, and all six have been double-digit wins.
Even garbage time has been mostly decent — it's normal for teams with huge leads to give up a few points, but opponents' garbage time gains have been much more modest of late. In these six games, the Lakers have been outscored in the fourth quarter by an average of less than 5 points. In the context of blowout wins where nearly the entire fourth quarter is garbage time, this isn't bad at all.
All this may seem insignificant. Observers unaware of the ins and outs of recent Lakers history might miss the significance in all of this, pointing out that this 6-game stretch has been against six bad teams, and therefore, the Lakers have simply been doing what they were supposed to do. Nothing impressive about that, right? That's true enough, but the point of this exercise isn't to sell you on how "impressive" the Lakers are right now; it's to suggest that they may be maturing to the point of overcoming their biggest and most consistent weakness over the last 13 months.
Frankly, the Lakers have almost never struggled against good competition, going back to the beginning of last season. It's the weaker competition that has revealed their lack of focus. And while improved focus against weaker competition may not necessarily indicate much for their performance against very good teams, it certainly speaks to the Lakers' overall mindset, mentality, and focus. And if they are maturing and improving in these areas, that can only mean that they are becoming that much better as a team. And if these Lakers are more focused overall, then it follows that they could be that much better this year than they were last year.
Of course, it's too soon to conclude that these lessons have, indeed, been fully learned, or that they are, indeed, a more mature and focused team. But for Lakers fans, this recent stretch has to be very encouraging. It's a good sign, and a very good first step.