If there’s one thing that’s clear after two games of the Lakers shifting to Mike D’Antoni’s schemes, it’s the fact that they can score in bunches and will have fun doing it. Against the Rockets the Lakers put up 119 points in the win and at times putting the ball in the basket simply looked easy. Granted, Houston isn’t a top defensive team, but it takes effort to score that many points regardless of opponent. (And, in a way, it takes a certain offensive discipline and commitment to approach as well. But that’s a topic for another day.)
If there’s another thing that’s clear it’s that the Lakers have the personnel to really excel at playing this style. No, the Lakers aren’t speed demons but playing this way isn’t so much about speed as it is tempo. The team is pushing the ball up the floor and getting into their sets quickly. With the defense not completely set up and ready to defend against a spread floor, the Lakers are quickly attacking the space given to them and making the most of their opportunities.
Tonight, it all started with Kobe Bryant. Kobe racked up a triple double and completely controlled the game in the process. He played the pick and roll wonderfully, navigating screens (or going away from them), occupying defenders and either exploding into the creases of the defense or hitting a teammate for an open shot. Time after time Kobe called for a pick for either Howard or Gasol and torched the Rockets’ defense with correct decision after correct decision. It’s not that far fetched to say that Kobe is playing some of the best basketball of his career as he’s swapped out other worldly athleticism for peak level smarts with a body that’s still capable of getting him into position where he can use a skill level that’s as high as any other player in the league.
Where Kobe used his superior smarts and skill, Dwight Howard is starting to show the elite athleticism that he’s been known for throughout his career. Over the course of the game, Dwight had countless highlight type plays where he was either a defensive monster, offensive juggernaut, or both:
Don’t let highlights like that one cloud the fact that Howard is also playing a fantastic brand of basketball that isn’t based off his ability to simply out jump his opponent. Countless times Dwight abused Omer Asik with quick moves to establish the deep post with nifty left handed finishes following the dirty work he did to get to his preferred spot. Baby hooks were much more frequent than the monster dunks and if his skill around the rim remains when his peak athleticism returns, the Lakers will be even more formidable.
Beyond the Lakers’ top two players, nearly every other player that saw the floor also played very well. Pau Gasol played a second straight very good, if understated, game with 17 points on 13 shots to go with a handful of rebounds and a few assists chipped in. Ron also continued his good play with 15 points on only 8 shots to go with 3 rebound and 2 assists. And Darius Morris had another very good night as the 5th option, scoring 12 points on 8 shots with 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals. All in all the Lakers starting 5 scored 94(!) points on only 65 shots. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The Lakers D, however, remains a work in progress. It’s almost as if they’re still a bit shocked that they’re scoring so well and in the midst of processing the last shot that fell, they’re not running back hard. The Rockets took advantage of this getting more than a handful of “transition” baskets off made Laker shots when they’d simply dribble as fast as they could up the floor and get a good shot or throw the ball ahead to a streaking wing who simply ran by his own man (and nearly every other Laker too). The Rockets ran well off missed shots too and scored 21 fast break points in the process. This will continue to be an issue since the Lakers love to hit the offensive boards hard but they must get more than one player back more consistently to slow run outs.
The Lakers also struggled protecting their defensive glass (something we warned about in our game preview). The Rockets grabbed 11 ORebs total and tipped several other rebounds around before the Lakers could corral them. And while the Rockets only scored 10 second chance points off their board work, if the Lakers want to be a running team they’ll need to be better about cleaning up their boards when shots are missed.
Overall though, there’s not much to really complain about from this win. The positives outweighed the negatives by a fair margin and with the team gaining confidence they’re starting to show some of the potential we all have them tapped for. Yes it’s still early and this team hasn’t yet hit a rough patch playing this way but I think it’s still fair to say that they’re believing in themselves more now. And that simple change is creating a ripple effect in their overall performance, especially on offense.
Time will tell if this is a lasting development. The odds say they’ll come down at some point, and maybe even soon. But, for right now, it sure is fun to watch.