The Lakers won a game that matters. There are a handful of games to point to that match that very simple "games that matter" criteria: Christmas Day with the Knicks, a couple of games against the Golden State Warriors, and if you really want to reach-- a blowout against Denver. All of those games, however, are just slippery salmon in comparison to the trophy great white shark the win against the Oklahoma City Thunder is. Sunday's victory can hang proudly in the Lakers locker room.
A late-January 105-96 victory over the Thunder may not have meant much in the past, but when the Lakers took the court in their Sunday whites all that mattered was who they are as a team now. They aren't the team that had seen the finals three years straight; hardened and tested through playoff battles and obstacles through the season. They've been a team desperately searching for an identity, a consistent way to win, health, and cohesion. The NBA has been a shifting landscape, the Lakers a shifting team, and hope a fleeting sentiment.
An extra notch in the W column doesn't make or break an 82 game season, but a victory over a championship contending team at the center of an uncertain time can become a turning point. Friday's win over the Utah Jazz was a solid all-around game. A game to build around, but not a game to rally around. Sunday against the Thunder? If this didn't provide the spark the Lakers needed to jump their seemingly dead battery then nothing will-- the Lakers season just a clunker; a lemon of a used car that Mitch Kupchak and the front office bought into and we as passengers couldn't wait to take a joy ride in.
Kobe Bryant repeated the equation we saw against the Jazz as he tallied up 14 assists for the second straight game. If it aint broke don't fix it. His teammates uncovered the mystery of moving off-ball while he dances around the defense and drives, and suddenly good things have begun to happen. Pau Gasol, Earl Clark, and Antawn Jamison cutting to the rim as opposed to standing and observing makes a world of difference for a offense that has been stagnant. With the Thunder sending doubles after him throughout the majority of the game Kobe picked apart the holes in their defense and the Lakers wound up with 29 assists as a team while shooting 55.4% from the field.
While Kobe spread the ball around, Steve Nash went ahead and had 17 points on 6-11 shooting (he also had 5 assists to go along with that on the side). There is still an instinctual hesitance to take shots from Nash, who has shown his long standing tendency to be choosey with his shot selection if he hasn't been lighting it up from the field, but he's shooting at an extremely high efficiency. Currently, Nash leads the Lakers with a 61.7% true shooting percentage, which is as much a byproduct of his ultra-high selectivity as it is proof-positive of his supreme gift for putting the ball through the hoop. The 8.6 field goal attempts per game that he's averaging right now is the lowest he's averaged in the last 12 seasons. You'd have to go all the way back to 1999-2000, where Nash was putting up 6.5 FGA's for the Dallas Mavericks. Moral of the story? Go ahead and take a few extra shots Nash. In fact, Steve Nash is currently 7th ranked in the NBA on spot-ups with 1.34 points per possessions on 53.3% shooting. Yes; that dirty, sacrilegious, practice of letting Steve Nash be a spot-up shooter has been effective for the Lakers.
One last dip into the small sample size (20 games for Steve Nash) pond while looking at the sudden Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash role reversal. Steve Nash has a true shooting percentage of .617 (as previously mentioned). Looking at raw numbers, he's shooting 51.5% from the field and 42% from deep. The largest blemish in his game right now aside from his defen- hey look a squirrel! - is his turnover percentage. Over 100 possessions Nash is will turn it over an estimated 23.2 times. Then, there's Kobe Bryant. His efficiency is still extremely high on the season at .575 true shooting, but his turnover percentage is where you'll find why this role-reversal makes plenty of sense by the metrics. Over 100 possessions it's estimated that Kobe will cough it up 11.8 times.
Worth noting, however, is that while Kobe has taken to being an aggressive facilitator, his TO% has taken a hit. In these last two games, respectively, his TO% has been 23.1 and 17. Simply put, and fairly obvious, when a player is trying to make plays by passing the turnovers are going to see a distinct raise. It isn't necessarily that Steve Nash isn't able to hold onto the ball, but Nash has had difficulty creating space and lanes off the dribble. Kobe, meanwhile, has had great success with his dribble penetration all season, and over the last two games has used the attention it draws from the defense to the team's advantage.
At this point in the 19-25 Lakers' season, however, whatever it takes to get a win is just fine. With Dwight Howard playing only 29 minutes while he battled foul trouble (in a poorly officiated game, no less) he had 8 points and 10 rebounds. With Howard spending 19 minutes on the bench, both Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison did a phenomenal job filling in the gap off the bench. Pau had another solid offensive night with 16 points, but only 4 rebounds. Gasol was 7-10 from the field in his 36 minutes off the pine and also had 4 assists. Jamison had 12 off the bench and was the active offensive player the Lakers need him to be in order to justify minutes being sliced up for him.
With the ball moving and grooving like a Parliament Funkadelic jam, the Lakers wound up with six players in double figures. The Thunder struggled from the field shooting only 44.4% from the field and 25% from deep. Kevin Durant scored 35 points while going 10-26, but was 13-14 from the line. In comparison, the Lakers missed 13 free throws (16-29). Russell Westbrook had a terrifically inefficient night as he went 6-22 for 17 points, but made a concerted effort to move the ball in the absence of his "I love killing the Lakers" shooting ability (13 assists on the night). The Thunder didn't have enough to stop the Pass Mamba's 21 points, 14 assists, and 9 rebounds and the Lakers were able to seal a statement win that concluded with a 30 point 4th quarter.
Now, the Lakers have a home game against the New Orleans Hornets Tuesday followed by the annual Grammy road trip (7 away games). The next 8 games will serve as a determining factor on the season for the purple and gold, with the final game in this stretch fittingly in Miami. We've talked about momentum, seizing the moment, and turning points here at Silver Screen and Roll at great lengths. The Lakers have "reset" the season time and time again, but there isn't time left for any of that now. They went out and turned the Thunder into their great white shark, all circumstances considered, and it's time to cash in. Whether this team has what it takes to keep the spark alive will be clear by February 10th once the final buzzer sounds off against the Heat.
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