It is honestly fascinating to navigate the ups and downs of this Laker team, capable of giving one of the best teams in the league fits in one of the hardest road arenas in the NBA one night and failing to do much against one of their league's worst in Staples Center the next. That defense that limited Portland, the league's premier offensive team on an efficiency basis, to 20 points in the first quarter seemed utterly helpless to prevent Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Anthony Davis from getting to the rim at will, allowing 35 points in a performance much more in line with the level this injury-ridden Lakers squad has displayed for most of the reason. A lack of rim protection, inconsistent rotations, and weak perimeter defense all contributed to the Pelicans running out to an early lead they would never relinquish.
The only thing that was sustaining the Lakers early on offense was the efforts of Pau Gasol, who scored 15 points in the first quarter, although as is standard for this year, he was a complete bystander as every New Orleans perimeter player took turns waltzing to the rim. If you want any indication of why the Lakers are very unlikely to re-sign Pau and why it's better for both sides if he goes elsewhere, this is it. A gaudy 29 point, 12 rebound, and four assist box score line on a 68.5 TS% was more or less rendered moot by his completely ineffectual rotations on the interior. That simply isn't something that the five on a team that likes to go small and spread the floor can do in the long-term.
Speaking of that small rotation, the Wesley Johnson as the starting four experiment wasn't quite as effective as it was last night, as the Lakers didn't get into transition as much and he had a tough time checking Davis wherever he was on the floor. A good deal of those buckets were taken by Kent Bazemore, who continues to be somewhat of a revelation with his blazing speed in transition, accuracy from outside, and occasional ability to put his shoulder down and draw fouls on the way to the rim. He tied his career high with 23 points on a 61.3 TS%, also stuffing the box score with four rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block. There still are quite a few rough edges to iron out -- go under the screen and play off Evans, please -- but at this point, it appears that Mitch Kupchak did end up making heck of a trade at the deadline.
Unfortunately, part of the reasoning behind that deal in guaranteeing playing time for Kendall Marshall does not appear to be moving as smoothly as expected. Although Marshall is still making solid passes and accrued ten assists last night, he failed to scratch in the scoring column and that's an unpalatable result from your starting point guard. He at least has to be some threat to score when he drives, whether it's from defenses respecting his accuracy from the imaginary four-point line he prefers or managing to nail floaters when he gets into the lane. That latter item is especially an issue because defenses are now playing Marshall for the pass every single time and whatever he has that passes for a floater -- seriously, compare it against how natural and smooth Jodie Meeks' floater is -- isn't very effective.
As a result, Marshall's playing time has been increasingly usurped by Jordan Farmar, who has been playing very solid ball since returning from his hamstring injury. The attempted Lakers comeback in the fourth quarter was with Farmar leading the way, putting up 20 points and eight assists on a 72.7 TS%. Farmar doesn't quite have Marshall's court vision, but he can still make on-point passes and more than makes up for it with his scoring ability. This is along the lines of what we imagined in the offseason that Farmar could do in D'Antoni's offense with sufficient playing time: turn the corner on the pick-and-roll and create havoc because of his acceleration and shooting ability. He still has to stay healthy, but at this rate, he's increasingly looking like a keeper in the offseason barring a draft or free agent acquisition at the point guard spot.
That comeback in the fourth was also helped by Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, both of whom appear to have firmly supplanted Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman in the rotation. While some frustratingly obtuse individuals fail to accept this reality, it's clear that the team is moving on from Hill and Kaman and seeing what Kelly and Sacre can do in the backup roles they will probably be asked to fill next season. For their part, they performed rather well. Kelly has been surprisingly adept at shot blocking and defensive rotations as of late, his conditioning and mobility no doubt returning more and more after coming off a summer of recovery from his ankle injury. As for Sacre, he had a fairly solid all-around game with nine points and five rebounds as well as decent defense on the interior. Whether they can play or not, they will be getting development and evaluation time going forward and it's heartening to see them perform well from a long-term perspective.
Lastly, this win helped to restore a bit of order to the Lakers' effort to attain a higher draft position, as they have an absolutely brutal schedule coming up. So long as the losses keep on piling up and the Lakers' young players provide plenty of reasons for Mitch Kupchak and the front office to consider retaining them in the offseason, however, it is as good of a result as can be expected at this point in the season and that was the case last night.
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