The Los Angeles Lakers are now guaranteed to be at or above .500 through 20 games this season, and since the 20th game will see the return of one Kobe Bryant, winning more games than they've lost in his absence is a tremendous achievement. Last night's victory was a microcosm of everything they've done well the whole season, from the all around team victory to the surprisingly sturdy defense (in the fourth quarter at least) to a coach whose every move seems to be paying dividends at the moment. If Kobe can be added to this mix without damaging the chemistry (and, of course, Kobe is Kobe and not a shell of himself), the Lakers might be poised to be far stronger than anybody could have expected at the start of the season.
Jodie Meeks - A team-high tying 19 points for Meeks on ruthlessly efficient 7-11 shooting and 5-6 from three point range. Meeks also hit two huge shots down the stretch to complete the Lakers come back and seal the victory. Meeks looks a completely different player from this year to last, and for my money, narrowly edges out Steve Blake as the Lakers' best and most influential player prior to Kobe's return. It will be interesting to see whether Meeks or Wesley Johnson (who deserves honorable mention for Beast status as well) finds their way to the bench now that the Black Mamba is back in the fold
4th quarter defense - After spending most of the evening looking slow and disinterested, giving up 87 points through three quarters, the Lakers turned up the defensive intensity in a major way in the fourth quarter. Five blocks (out of a total seven in the game) and five steals (out of a total ten), including a delightful moment in which Robert Sacre just devoured a Demarcus Cousins shot attempt, helped the Lakers hold the Kings to just 13 poitns in the final period, turning a 6 point lead into a 6 point victory despite struggling a bit on the offensive end themselves.
Mike D'Antoni - There's no getting around it; in leading a Kobe-less, Nash-less team with their only available star player hardly playing like a star to a 10-9 record, Coach D'Antoni has done an absolutely spectacular job with the team of players he's been given. The team is clearly buying in, moving and sharing the ball the way he likes, and he's even got them playing a bit of defense. Most relevantly to last night, however, he's been tinkering the rotations like a mad scientist this season, and just when he does something that seems absolutely crazy, it works like a charm. He started Robert f**king Sacre last night despite having Jordan Hill (relatively) healthy and available, because Hill has struggled of late and he wanted Jordan to be able to play with the spurts of manic energy that are his calling card. It seemed nuts ... until Sacre had 7 points and 4 rebounds on 3-3 shooting in the first quarter, and Hill was back to his old "nearly a rebound for every minute played" routine in the 2nd half. By definition, mad scientists are crazy ... but they are also genius, and D'Antoni is showing off both traits in style.
Steve Blake - Another slightly off-color night for the Lakers point guard, Blake missed a great deal of open shots that have been consistently falling for him this season, and his four turnovers are not what you'd want from your lead guard either. He deserves a bit of pass because he's playing a ton of minutes since the Lakers don't have another primary ball handler available at the moment (Hello there, Kobe), but he's definitely fallen off a bit from the standard he established in the first 15 games of the season.
Pau Gasol - Yes, he shared team high honors in the points category with 19, but he shot just 6-15 from the field, and he was a step slow the whole night in terms of defensive rotations, and pulled down just 7 rebounds in his 33 minutes on a night in which the Lakers were crushed on the boards. In Kobe's absence, the Lakers were widely expected to go only as far as Gasol could carry them, but according to PER, there are four Lakers performing better than he has this season, five if you count Robert Sacre in limited minutes. PER is hardly a be-all, end-all, but that ranking seems about right to me, and is not acceptable when you consider that Gasol makes significantly more than all of the other players in that hierarchy combined.
Xavier Henry as a point guard - It's not really X's fault that the Lakers literally have nobody outside of Steve Nash who can run the offense, but one game after looking surprisingly effective as the orchestrator of the Lakers P&R attack, X looked absolute lost in his time spent as the lead guard. He turned the ball over three times in just 17 minutes of play. With Jordan Farmar set to miss a good chunk of time and Steve Nash's return mired in uncertainty, Kobe's return to the role of primary ball handler couldn't come at a better time