After some poor performances against the league's elite, the Los Angeles Lakers were in need of a signature win, they needed to make a statement against somebody good. They needed to prove that they were still capable of rolling the big boys that would lie in their way come playoff time.
Um, message signed, sealed, delivered and received.
If the Cavaliers game represented everything that is wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers, this game represented everything that is right with them. The defense was very good. The bench was a significant and potent weapon. The shooting was off the charts. And the ball movement was glorious. Last night's game was as complete a performance as the Lakers have played since the Game 6 victory in Denver in last year's WCF. The Lakers won the first quarter by 17 points, and normally that would have been the first ingredient to a close game because the Lakers would let Dallas back into it. Last night? The Lakers won the 2nd quarter (+8) and the 3rd quarter (+15) too. The Los Angeles Lakers we all love finally showed up last night, and it was something to behold.
All four of those elements were parts of the game that the Lakers have struggled with at some point or another. Their defense is still statistically one of the best, but recently the Lakers defense has looked paltry at best, especially since Ron Artest got injured on Christmas Day. Their offense (shooting and ball movement) has been struggling all season long. And the bench? The bench hasn't been a strong asset to this team for over a year. So, the question begging to be answered is: Was last night's performance a fluke, or indicative of things to come? The correct answer is: Yes.
We'll start with the defense. It can be difficult to assign defensive credit vs. offensive blame sometimes, and for me, this qualifies as one of those challenges. The Lakers defense was certainly active and engaged. They were rotating quickly, trapping effectively. But, to a certain extent, it was just one of those nights for the Mavericks. They couldn't hit shots, whether open or not. Jason Kidd was 0-6 from the field, all of his shots from 3 pt range, and more than one of them wide open. He's shooting 39% from 3 on the year. There are other examples, but Kidd's performance generally sums up the level of suckitude Dallas brought to the floor.
That said, there's no reason to believe the defense was a fluke, because it's been there (almost) all year. The Lakers are a very good defensive team, and while it hasn't actually been on display for the last week or so, it's undoubtedly still there.
The ball movement? I can only pray that wasn't a fluke. Much as I enjoy the Lakers taking another team out to the woodshed, the blowout aspect of last night's performance was not nearly as enjoyable as that ball movement. The Lakers were playing the "Beautiful Game" last night. Crisp rotation passes, not settling for the first open shot, plenty of dives, with plenty of dive passes. Last night was the best passing night I can remember the Lakers having for quite a while. I was complaining about the ball movement last year, even as the Lakers were winning the championship. In fact, I wasn't sure the team was still capable of moving the ball like that. So, while it was definitely great to see, I'm going to need more than a one game positive sample size before I think that last night's ball movement is the norm, not an exception.
The shooting was most definitely a fluke. Just one of those games where everything is dropping, especially for Jordan Farmar. I have no idea if the Lakers are shopping Farmar or not, if they are interested in making a move to strengthen the bench with Adam Morrison's expiring contract and Farmar as the bait. But if they are, all they need to do is make a copy of last night's game to send to the rest of the league to prove that Farmar can be a good player. A career high for Jordan, and while I don't think he may ever shoot 6-8 from 3 pt range again, he is capable of being an explosive scorer if his head and his shot are right. They haven't been for some time, but today is not the day for criticism.
And Jordan wasn't the only one having a very good night. 63% shooting on the night, with 58%(!!) from 3 pt range. The entire active roster played last night, and no one on the entire team shot below 50%. That's not a performance that can be replicated, it was undoubtedly a fluke. But it may not be as much of a fluke as you think. The Lakers shooting this year has been downright dismal. Sure, they are ranked in the middle of the pack in both 3 pt % and regular FG%, but middle of the pack is not good enough for what is, or was, on paper a team filled with good offensive players. So, while last night's shooting performance was ridiculous and unrepeatable, I don't think you should necessarily expect things to just go back to the way they were. This game could definitely be a catalyst for knocking the Lakers shooting slump into orbit. Only time will tell.
And the bench? Again, more than one game is needed to prove that the bench's current "poor" label should be shed. But what a night for the bench. 66 points, everyone scoring at least 3 times. Everyone on the bench played 15+ minutes. The bench played important minutes, too. There were lineups out there that included 4 bench players and Lamar Odom (normally a bench player). In the past, such lineups have been a recipe for disaster. Last night, that lineup was the recipe for some lovely chocolate chip cookies, and an increased lead. The bench helped to build the lead instead of tearing it down like a wrecking ball. One would think last night's performance was clearly a fluke, but it's not like these players performed outside of where we've seen them perform. They just all performed outside the realm that we've seen them perform recently.
And we'd all better hope that there was more truth than fluke to the way the bench performed last night, because the Lakers are going to need their bench in the near future. In case you haven't heard, the Lakers schedule in January is ... formidable. Ron Artest has been out for over a week, and while his return seems imminent, one never knows with head injuries. Pau Gasol has injured his other hamstring in the same way that caused him to miss 10 games and the entire pre-season earlier this year. Assuming both Artest and Gasol continue to miss time, you are looking at a 9 man rotation of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga. Before last night, such a thought would induce hyperventilation and hysteria in Lakerland. Now, well, at least we have a shining beacon of hope at least until the next game, where the bench scores 7 points and goes -15 collectively. Cross your fingers people.
A note on Pau Gasol - Don't read too much into the severity of Pau's injury, just because he didn't return to the game. With a 25 pt lead at the half, the Lakers wouldn't have played Pau if he picked up a hangnail. But you should be concerned. A hamstring strain is an annoying injury, one that gets worse if you rush back (as Pau found out earlier this season). Since Pau and the Lakers have been through this so recently, look for them to be extremely cautious with the injury. I'll be extremely surprised if Pau doesn't miss at least a week's worth of time. With 6 games in 8 days starting on Tuesday, included doozies like @ Portland (a guaranteed loss the past few seasons), @ Dallas (who might be ticked off about last night's game), and @ San Antonio, it's a bad week to miss. Unfortunately though, it's not nearly as bad a week to miss as the next couple after that, with games against Orlando and the dreaded 8 game road trip looming large. It's a very bad time for the Lakers to be beat up, and beat up is undoubtedly what they are.
Check out what Mavs Moneyball has to say about last night's game. On second thought, don't. I certainly have nothing against their site, but I wouldn't want anybody to have to recap that debacle. Instead, look at your box and recap.