The Lakers' defense was not very crisp last night. Dwight Howard was a dynamo of effort as he is wont to be nowadays, but the help behind him was utterly miserable time and time again. You miss someone like Lamar Odom, who was pretty prompt with his back end responsibilities and the wings also need to hugely improve in this area (cough) Kobe (cough).
But last night was not necessarily about the Lakers' defense. If we look at the shot chart, we see quite a different picture for both squads. On the right is the Lakers, who look like they absorbed every tidbit of what the guys at Sloan were talking about, as nearly every shot was either a three or in the paint. Even when shots weren't falling for them, they were following an ideal path to success that maximizes the efficiency of their efforts on the floor. On the flip side was the Raptors, where we have a metric ton of long twos, which stats junkies will tell you is the least efficient shot in basketball. Toronto didn't just take a lot of them, they made a lot of them. The Lakers, when they weren't allowing a guy to cut back door behind Dwight and finish at the rim, were forcing Toronto into taking a lot of inefficient shots. Granted, they were open a lot, but the Raptors shoot 36.5% from 16-23 feet. It's not a sustainable form of offense unless you're named Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, or similar.
It bespeaks how the team has been put into Mike D'Antoni's paradigm and bought into his system. If you have an open three pointer, shoot it. It pays off over time. If you can't get an open shot, pass it and try to get the ball closer to the rim. Don't pound the ball and decrease the efficiency of any given shot you can get unless it's absolutely necessary. Even Kobe has bought into this, as he's hugely decreased the number of long twos -- which he does hit at a robust 40%, but that's still lower than his 71% (!!) at the rim and 45% from 3-9 feet -- in favor of getting to the rim. It's a huge thematic change from last year's offense, which was built on Kobe's midrange and long twos, Andrew Bynum's post-ups, and Pau Gasol's long range shots and is one for the better.
- Kobe Bryant -- As bad as the turnovers were and they were egregious at times, 41/6/12 on a 72.2 TS% is ridiculous no matter what criteria you're using to judge. The flip side of Kobe's new approach of getting towards the rim is that there's going to be more mistakes, especially when his favored release valve in Pau Gasol isn't present in the high post at all times. You don't get a lot of turnovers jab stepping and putting up a long two, but you do navigating through defenders in order to secure a lane to the rim while simultaneously trying to find guys to pass to. By that same coin, you have to do it without it leading to a transition opportunity for the other team, especially given how lackluster the Lakers are in defending that. A lot of Kobe's turnovers occur when he's forcing it too much rather than going towards paths of less resistance. His career has been built on overcoming conventional wisdom and continuing to succeed despite taking the tough options, but this approach requires him to take a more measured and careful outlook.
- Dwight Howard -- Hello, dominant post option. Dwight got the ball in the deep post and just converted it when he got the ball down there. It's a nice development for him since he's been putting in the work in previous games but hasn't necessarily been rewarded with points in his post-ups. It might be because his back had a good day or his touch was more on point, but whatever it was, good for him. The least you can ask of Dwight is for consistent effort and you hope the team rewards him for it by getting him the ball in the low post and actually rotating to cover his man when he makes up for the myriad mistakes of the Lakers' perimeter defenders.
- Steve Nash -- This has to be a weird role for Nash. He's being asked to fulfill a role he's excellent at, nay might be one of the best in the history of the league at, as a designated shooter, but it's not the thing that comes first to him naturally. He's a playmaker but doesn't have the burst off the pick-and-roll to create in the manner he's accustomed to and he is usually better off shooting the ball with the space that Dwight Howard creates with his picks. This might be the next evolution in Nash's game, or at the very least, one that he has to deal with until Dwight's back allows him to dunk everything thrown within a certain radius of the rim or Pau Gasol returns as a pick-and-pop partner. Even so, Nash's shooting is something that is going to endure no matter what else happens with his game and it's the thing he can unequivocally help the team with right now.
- Honorable mention to Steve Blake, who didn't shoot well but continues to make it up with his playmaking and defense. When it comes down to it, that's what Blake needs to provide, as any spot-up shooting he provides is gravy on top of the other things he brings on the floor. The Lakers need a stable presence that isn't going to kill the team when both Nash and Kobe are sitting and for the first time in a while, they have someone like that.
- Earl Clark -- He's declined enough that this is actually becoming somewhat worrisome. Yeah, he's being asked to play out of position a whole lot and needs other players to create opportunities for him, but he shouldn't be playing this badly. We're getting dangerously close to having his stupendous play being declared the exception rather than what his game has developed into. His decreased playing time is the clearest sign of the coaching staff's decreasing confidence in his play, or at the very least, at the five position. With Robert Sacre going to the D-League and the Lakers not signing any other option, they will have to continue to rely on Clark, but he has to start turning things around before he regresses into being merely a bit player. That he wasn't called in for defensive purposes to stall Toronto's guards from posting up the Lakers' smaller wings speaks miles in this regard.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks definitely got abused on defense last night, although being asked to cover a taller guy is a tall order for him. This bled into his offensive game, as his shot wasn't falling and unlike a lot of other guys on the team, he doesn't make up for it through doing the peripheral stuff. If Meeks isn't defending well or hitting his shots, he doesn't offer a whole lot of value on the floor, but given the lack of options the Lakers have right now, you can't blame Mike D'Antoni too much. In an ideal world, Pau Gasol would also be out on the floor and Alan Anderson would have been laughably been trying to post up Metta World Peace. It highlights how thin the rotation is and what injuries have taken from the Lakers this year.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta brought it on defense, but he can't take twelve shots and only come out of that with nine points. His shot selection wasn't completely awful last night, although sometimes it just comes down to making your jumpers. As mentioned his defense was definitely valuable, as he secured the four spot with Clark not performing well and his improvement in pick-and-roll coverage has been a boon in this regard.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Antawn Jamison, whose dip offensively is all but confirmed at this juncture. It was unreasonable to expect him to keep shooting such a solid percentage from three and Jamison made up for it by doing a good job of attacking the rim, although he could improve on making only half his attempts there. Some of the misses were just plain misses: convert the layups he gets on cuts or drives to the rim. And in a fairly consistent theme here, Jamison being asked to fill a bigger minute load has exposed his limitations, especially on defense, but that's the downside of having minutes on the floor when there is no rim protector present.