By this time, it is fairly clear that the efforts of the Lakers' role players are the determining factor in any given game. With Denver so dedicated to stopping the interior game -- particularly Andrew Bynum, as you can read from Chris' piece earlier today -- other opportunities have opened up, and at least for the closing minutes of last night, the Lakers took advantage. With only an eight man rotation and such heavy minutes given to the starters, the Lakers don't necessarily need a high octane scoring bench similar to what Denver has, but they do need to make the shots they are given as part of the offense and work hard on defense. No one will confuse this unit with the last group to truly deserve the moniker "Bench Mob" ('07-'08), but seemingly year after year, Mitch Kupchak has filched someone in a trade that ends up filling an essential role for the Lakers in the playoffs, a development that has kept the Lakers' reserves afloat thus far this series. A continual lack of first round picks, payroll flexibility, and a train of poor free agent signings have not deterred him from finding a way to work things out.
- Jordan Hill -- Ironically, the player who has best filled that description thus far in the playoffs has not been headline acquisition Ramon Sessions, but rather Hill, who didn't even play significant minutes until very late in the year. Thus far in the series, he has acquired an ironclad hold on the third big spot and is proving yet again that all those adjusted rebounding statistics are telling a very real truth: he is a dynamo on the boards. His ability to jump for rebounds is uncanny, especially in crowds and he has the athleticism to go right back up to secure the ball on tips after his initial jump. Combined with his seemingly limitless motor, he has made a huge impact in the series despite largely getting garbage points around the rim. He simply tries harder than the players around him. In Game 4, Hill forced at least two turnovers simply due to being active on his pick-and-roll coverage -- and he is far and away the team's best pick-and-roll defender because of that lateral quickness -- and even if he's not completely up to speed on the defensive rotations, he'll sure as hell try to get to where he thinks he needs to be. For the wonderfully skilled and multifaceted bigs the Lakers have in their starting lineup, Hill is a perfect complement.
- Steve Blake -- Redemption tastes sweet. After a terrible game up until the third quarter characterized by his eternally frustrating tentativeness, Blake broke through with some timely threes and even a few key efforts on defense to help the Lakers clinch the game in the closing minutes. He still needs to be more proactive about looking for his shot since the flow of the offense often requires him to hoist up one in certain circumstances, but when he was called upon in the clutch, he definitely delivered. Why he continues to be a key ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations is somewhat befuddling -- he is hardly a threat to penetrate off the pick and even the 1-2 pick-and-roll with Kobe is a mostly useless gesture since it rarely forces a switch -- but altogether, he played a mostly mistake free game, which is all the Lakers can ask of him.
- Andrew Bynum -- Even with Denver throwing everything and the kitchen sink to stop Bynum from getting a clean post-up on the low block, the Lakers have to make more of a concerted effort to get him the ball. The 4-5 pick-and-roll in particular is something that seems to have been chronically underutilized in this series, and the endless lobs that Bynum got around the rim during the regular season attest to its effectiveness. Make no doubt: Bynum is working for low post position, but a combination of the perimeter players being overly hesitant to throw the entry pass -- Matt Barnes might be the best of the bunch at getting him the ball -- and Denver's aggressive denial is preventing him from getting touches. On the other end, Bynum is still active, although that dominating attitude that he carried in Game 1 appears to have disappeared. True, Denver has made adjustments to compensate for his presence, but there is an effort gap that Bynum will need to fill.
- Pau Gasol -- Gasol's consistency is like clockwork at this point. A fairly efficient shooting line, double digit rebounds or close to it, and half a dozen assists have been his norm and he has stuck to it as the third option in the offense. Oddly, he has been much more effective this series as a floor spacer -- along with the 4-5 pick-and-roll mentioned above, the 1-4 and 2-4 pick-and-rolls need to make a reappearance -- than he has in the deep post despite his huge height advantage on Kenneth Faried, who doesn't stand 6'8'' in shoes. Given the struggles of the Lakers' perimeter players to nail shots from distance, it might be worth to stick Gasol farther from the basket, particularly since his distributing from the high post can further help grease the wheels of the Lakers' offense.
- Honorable mention goes to Matt Barnes, who never, ever stops working within the offense. He bailed out a ton of possessions in Game 4 through his timely cutting -- deserving a hell of a lot more calls around the rim in the process. Even if his outside shot isn't falling, Barnes is doing positive things on the floor on both ends. Get rid of the hitch in his shot and between Hill and Barnes, the Lakers will have a much better bench unit.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe's eternal fascination with trying to take the hardest shot possible never ceases to amaze. Time and time again, he would get a fairly easy shot and turn it down in favor of some insane sequence around the rim. You can see the indecision as he hesitates whenever he gets a wide open shot from behind the arc and refuses to throw it up until the defense has already recovered. We all can respect Kobe's skill level, but when it comes down to it, those shots are open for a reason. The team did a better job of preventing Kobe's wayward shooting from turning into transition points for Denver as it had in previous games, but needless to say, the more Kobe works within the offense, the more everyone benefits. With Bynum stifled by Denver's flooding of the interior and hard doubles, Kobe needs to be that perimeter threat that alleviates the pressure from Bynum.
- Devin Ebanks -- Ebanks' effectiveness has dimmed since his solid opening game of the series. His outside shot has gone in less, his numbers on the boards have decreased, and his assigned matchup on defense in Danilo Gallinari chose to break out in his best game of the playoffs. With Barnes struggling as well, the small forward position has returned to being a very familiar position of weakness for the Lakers. While one can expect Ebanks to improve from Game 4, during which even his fairly timely cutting never materialized all that much, that Metta World Peace needs to return is fairly evident at this juncture.
- Ramon Sessions -- Sessions' problems are partially coming because he hasn't been involved in nearly enough pick-and-roll action, as he's mostly wasted as a simple entry passer. The pick-and-roll opens lanes for him, provides him with a release valve from his drive and is basically what his game relies on. The Lakers have mostly seen fit to stick him on the wing and go to work, which isn't a really productive way to utilize Sessions' talents, particularly since it makes Sessions' counterpart in Ty Lawson or Andre Miller work on defense. All that said, Sessions needs to manifest that deadly outside shot that he demonstrated in the regular season to open up things for everyone else, as he's only shooting 25% from range thus far in the series.