It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It seems that the Lakers bench took that saying to heart as they showed up big in their first regular season game. By turning the tide in the third quarter and then riding that wave of energy and emotion to take the lead in the final frame, the bench showed that they’re up to the task that they’ll face countless times in this marathon of an NBA regular season.
But, even though there are mostly all positive take aways from the game, there were some things that I saw last night that I’ll be looking out for when the bench gets their burn in the upcoming games. Not negative things, mind you, just some things that could be tweaked; things that as the season progresses could be improved upon. The first thing that I’ll be watching for is Steve Blake striking the needed balance between floor general and offensive threat.
Last night, Steve Blake was one of the heroes. His two three pointers at the end of the third period cut a double digit Houston lead to a manageable five points and gave the Lakers momentum heading into the fourth quarter. He then closed the contest with another made three and a defensive stop that clinched the game. Down the stretch, Blake was fantastic and without his efforts the Lakers surely would have started out the season with a loss.
However, earlier in the game, I thought Blake was a bit too passive. I understand that one of his biggest strengths – and a trait that is a welcome sight after seeing some of the erratic play of his predecessor that now plays in the swamps of Jersey – is how poised, seasoned, and natural a point guard Blake is. During the preseason, I consistently praised Blake for his dedication to running the Lakers sets; for his ability to organize the team in a manner that produced success on offense. And last night, true to form, Blake again showed his patience and poise by consistently moving the ball on to a teammate in hopes of sparking the Lakers’ struggling offense. But, that dedication to make the extra pass came at the cost of Blake’s own ability to impact the game by scoring the ball. On several occasions, he made the fundamental play to move the ball on but in some of those instances he just as easily could have taken the shot because he was just as open as the man that he was passing the ball to.
Believe me, no one enjoys seeing the Triangle run well more than me. But there are times where Blake will need to shoot the ball – even when he’s not as open - in order to find the right balance. This may be somewhat against his nature, but he’s too good a shooter to continue to pass if he’s just as open (or even moreso) than the players he’s moving the ball to. A perfect example of when he broke out of his passing mindset was on his second three pointer at the end of the 3rd quarter. On that play, Blake received a pass in the corner and Matt Barnes approached to set a screen for him. At the instant the screener arrived, Blake’s man shifted his defensive stance to guard against the pick and gave Blake that wee bit of daylight needed to get his shot off. Blake fired away, made the shot, and cut the deficit to 5. Earlier in the game, Blake would have accepted the screen and played out the action that’s (surely) been drilled countless times in practice. And while that would have been completely acceptable, it likely wouldn’t have yielded the same results.
In a way, I’d like to see Blake be just a bit more like Fisher. I know that one of the major complaints that many have had with Derek is his almost over-willingness to take shots. As one of the lower efficiency players on the team the past few seasons, Fisher’s propensity to fire up a shot early in the clock or when only slightly open can be frustrating at times. But, that same willingness to step up and take the shot is what allows Fisher to be a functional player in the offense (regardless of whether the shot goes in or not). Fisher deploys himself as a threat in the Triangle by shooting when the opportunity is there. This is a lesson learned at the footstool of Tex Winter and Phil Jackson; the lesson saying that penetration can come off the dribble, the pass, or a shot. Blake doesn’t have the benefit of being tutored by Tex, but he does have Jackson, Fisher, and Kobe in his ear and over time he’ll learn these same lessons.
And I do expect Blake to learn and grow within the offense. The second half last night showed what Blake is capable of within the offense. When Kobe drove off that P&R and whipped the pass that led to Blake’s virtual game winner, we saw the trust that already exists between Kobe and his new teammate. In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking for this trust to expand beyond what Blake’s teammates show in him, but in the trust that he shows in himself. And, I do think that time will come soon with the result being a better balance of when to be passer and when his shooting/scoring is needed. He’s too smart a player for it not to.