The Los Angeles Lakers have been busy making drastic changes to their roster. The game of darts and names dates all the way back to when Mike Brown was signed as head coach. The first errant dart to leave the hand of Jim Buss. Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts, Jason Kapono, Jordan Hill, Ramon Sessions, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Chris Duhon, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, and most recently; Mike D'Antoni have followed. All those darts, so few have even struck the board, and the rest of them are still suspended in air, verdict-less.
To say the Lakers have had a difficult start to their season would be an understatement. What team shows up wearing purple and gold is about as unpredictable as can be, but last night, a dart finally struck a target. The tip lodged deep into the neck of a man muttering "on paper".
On paper, the new and improved bench of the Lakers was going to spread the floor for Dwight Howard and give Steve Nash instruments of destruction. On paper, Dwight Howard was the dominant force that the Lakers always wanted Andrew Bynum to be on both ends of the floor. On paper, Antawn Jamison was supposed to be the scoring punch that the Lakers lacked last season. On paper, Jodie Meeks was the three point specialist the Lakers have desperately needed for years. On paper, the bench was going to alleviate the pressure on the rest of the stars, allowing the game to play out naturally.
Kobe Bryant had 14 points, Pau Gasol had 6 points, but the Lakers had 122 points. 122, only 20 of them coming from the two men who have been leading the Lakers into battles for years. Pau and Kobe had 8 assists each as their new teammates handled the rest, and the Lakers moonwalked to a monstrous 122-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Kobe has had an amazingly efficient season for the Lakers and it's been heavily chronicled across the vast plains of the internet at this point. He's also in year 17 of his career and infamous for forcing shots when no one else appears to be able to score for the Lakers. Kobe clearly still has the chops to score with the best of them on a nightly basis, but being able to keep the chamber loaded with those bullets as opposed to using them in late November games is just as important. Perhaps even more important for the Lakers, though, is uncovering just what they're working with.
And that's just what Mike D'Antoni has done over these last few games. Antawn Jamison suddenly looks like the scoring punch he was billed to be, and the fact that he's grabbing boards (he had 12 last night, and 15 against Dallas) is just a little something extra. His final point total for the night, 33, isn't sustainable. He won't make 50% of his three pointers (5-10 last night) through the season. But the threat will always be there and Mike D'Antoni is empowering him to be aggressive when the opportunity presents itself to the veteran. Over the last four games (going back to the game at Memphis) Jamison has averaged 17.5 points per game and 9.5 rebounds, all for $1.35 million. He isn't just shooting the ball well, he's cutting to the rim when there's an open lane, and his unorthodox flips make him an incredibly awkward assignment when he's at the rim.
Partnering Jamison's production with a suddenly confident Meeks, shooting without hesitation, and the Lakers bench can be devastating. Meeks has perhaps the most clear cut role on the team: catch, shoot, repeat. 7-8 from deep? Hello there, Jodie Meeks, so glad you were able to escape the dungeon cellar you were locked away in. Clearly shooting 88% from downtown on that many attempts isn't going to be a regular occurrence, but similarly to Jamison, the threat has been established. Teams have long been able to sag off of the Lakers perimeter players and pack the paint, making life entirely too difficult for the post players on the roster. A great example of making this mistake came when Metta World Peace was in the post against Ty Lawson. The Nuggets sent help for Lawson, which left Meeks wide open. Catch, shoot, points for Meeks.
Lost in all of this is just how dominant Dwight Howard looked. This was perhaps the Dwightiest Dwight game yet, logging his first 20/20 game with the Lakers. 28 points and 20 rebounds (8 offensive boards), along with 3 blocked shots. All under 32 minutes of game time. Oh, and the cherry on top? A three to end the game, tying the Lakers franchise record of 17 threes in regulation. [Insert Andrew Bynum weed smoking, music blaring, gun wielding, pet roaming joke here].
There were plenty of positives to focus on in this game, but the Lakers defense yet again let their opponents score over 100 points. While the Lakers dropped 71 points in the first half, the Nuggets had 57 of their own, and were within single digits through much of the game even when the Lakers were plowing through points. Danilo Gallinari ended the night with a team high 19 points, but no other player was able to find rhythm. It goes to show just how important it is for the Lakers to strike first and interrupt the flow of the game for their opponents. Ty Lawson's season of struggle continued, with a 9 point (3-11), 5 assist, 5 turnover game that looked nothing like the Lawson who was ripping Los Angeles apart in the playoffs.
Just as impressive as the work on the offensive side of the ball for Los Angeles, though, is how effective they were on the glass. The Denver Nuggets lead the league in rebounding yet grabbed only 38 rebounds total last night. No Nuggets player had double digit boards, and known hustle guy Kenneth "The Manimal" Faried had only 2 rebounds. When the shots are falling it's mighty difficult to find a loose ball, and when Dwight Howard is engaged and working in 8 offensive rebounds, it becomes even harder.
All stats aside, this is the type of game that defines a Mike D'Antoni led team. Free flowing offense, three point shooting, big man pick and roll play, and excitement. Earlier I pointed out that the Lakers only added in 20 points between Kobe and Pau, but Steve Nash is still on the outside looking in as well. Mr. Facilitator himself. If Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison are getting open looks already, imagine what Nash will do with them. It'll be just like a game of darts. Lakers standing behind the line with nothing between them and their target, free to shoot at their target unhindered. Last night the Lakers took the "on paper" talk and turned it into a reality. The onus is on them to now carry this mountain of momentum forward and bury their opponents in an avalanche of offense. Sunday night against the Orlando Magic should be another game where the Lakers dominate wire to wire. For now, let's just enjoy this beaut of a game.
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- Check in on how Denver is coping with this loss over at Denver Stiffs