Lakers/Warriors: A Turning Point (?)

Zephid —  December 22, 2012

My goodness.

In what is clearly the game of the season so far for the Lakers (and maybe the league), the guys in forum blue and gold managed to pull off a gutsy comeback over a hot Warriors team, earning a hard-fought 118-115 OT win.  While this certainly wasn’t the prettiest of games, the entire 4th quarter and OT was a slugfest, featuring amazing shot-making (and -missing) from both teams, with 7 lead changes in the last 4 minutes of the 4th.

This was a game where the Lakers could easily have crumbled.  With Dwight in foul trouble all game long and Kobe throwing up more shots than most guys put up in a couple of weeks, facing a good, young Warriors team on the road seemed like a recipe for disaster.  Indeed, it looked like the Lakers were headed to another blowout loss, going down 14 in the 3rd quarter and taking a 13 point deficit into the 4th.  The defense looked as lackluster as ever, and the offense wasn’t working to perfection with Steve Nash in only his first game back.  Still, the Laker reserves brought the game back within arm’s reach, and then the starters closed out the game in OT.

Clearly the story going in to the game was the return of Steve Nash.  How would he impact the game, and how much could he give?  Well, he played a very D’Antoni-esque 41 minutes in his first game back, and he didn’t look like he was laboring, so his conditioning seems adequate.  Nash also controlled the offense almost from the outset.  Basically every minute he was on the floor before the 4th quarter, Nash completely controlled the offense, using pick-and-rolls from the point.  Time after time, he would weave his way into the lane, some times to success, some times to failure.  Some were the fault of Lakers bigs not finishing easy baskets, while others were simply Nash getting trapped and having no outlet.  Nash finished with an impressive 12 points and nine assists, including a huge three in the 4th and his patented, one-legged, mid-range jump shot in the lane to seal the game in OT.  His impact was immediate, and the validity of all the “wait for Nash” arguments seem supported now.

The Lakers had many reasons to lose this game, and two of them happened to be the two stars of the team: Kobe and Dwight.  Dwight was in foul trouble from the get-go, picking up two fouls in the first five minutes, being forced to head to the bench.  In the 2nd quarter, Dwight picked up another quick foul, sending him away for the half.  In the 3rd, he picked up another quick foul, putting him to bed until the 4th.  And then he picked up another quick foul, his fifth.  At that point, Dwight had played a grand total of 12 minutes, so D’Antoni wisely decided to leave Dwight in and let him decide his own fate.  Dwight responded by playing solidly and not fouling out until the last moments of OT, helping spearhead the comeback.  Even though he only finished with 11 points and six rebounds, Dwight still made his presence felt on defense, and also was an excellent facilitator on offense when the Warriors doubled.

With Dwight out for such an extended period, Kobe seemed to take it upon himself to pick up the slack (and the shots).  Shooting a RIDICULOUS 41 shots, Kobe missed 25 of them, going 16-41 from the field to finish with 34 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists.  Several of his misses were of the forced, KobeISO-variety, but some were mid-range shots that he normally makes with ease.  While I can live with the Kobe Assist shots, it is painful to watch Kobe pound the ball for 15 seconds, only to watch him chuck up a shot with no Lakers near the rim for offensive rebound opportunities.  However, Kobe made several crucial shots in the 4th Quarter and OT (and missed some crucial shots, too), and he showed himself well-adjusted to operating off the ball, being the recipient of many a Nash and Dwight pass.

However the biggest reason why the Lakers won the game was due to the bench, two guys in particular:

1. Metta. World. Peace:  I honestly can’t say enough about this guy, willing to come off the bench for the benefit of the team, and still bringing 100% effort on every possession.  MWP was everywhere, whether it was sinking 3-6 threes, two straight in the 1st quarter, or working on the block to finish shooting 7-13 for 20 points, including two amazing spin moves past Klay Thompson early in the 4th to start the Laker comeback.  Throw in a block, a steal, three assists and five boards, including two offensive, and the statbox clearly shows that Metta was EVERYWHERE.

2. Jordan Hill:  This dude needs playing time.  There’s no question about that.  Even if his minutes mostly came due to Dwight’s foul trouble, Hill showed D’Antoni and all of us that he deserves minutes, regardless of Dwight’s time on the floor.  His shooting stroke finally came together, hitting 6-9 shots from the field, including three 20 footers coming in rhythm.  Hill’s beastly rebounding was also on display, with eight rebounds in the game, including six(!) offensive.  His work on defense was also impressive, showing that he is a solid hedge and recover big man.

The bench led the comeback in the 4th, taking a 13 point deficit down to a 4 point deficit in under 6 minutes, clearing the way for the starters to return and seal the deal.

Let’s not discount the Warriors performance, with guys like David Lee going for 20 and 11, and Jarrett Jack, a perennial Laker-killer, regardless of his team, going insane for 29 points on 13-19 shooting and 11 assists.  Jack eviscerated Nash, taking him to school 1-1 repeatedly, then proceeded to kill any Laker who tried to guard him by smartly using picks and finding open guys.  If not for Klay Thompson and Steph Curry going for a Kobe-esque 14-39 combined, the Warriors would have almost certainly won this game.

Special mention is deserved for the Lakers end-game execution.  While at times it was GODDAWFUL (KobeISO to end the 4th, I’m looking at you), it was beautiful at times.  The Lakers repeatedly ran a set with Pau and Dwight at the elbows, with Pau receiving an entry pass from Nash.  Surveying the field, once Pau found Meeks for a cut and score, then Dwight for an alley-oop, then Meeks again for a three.  While this set seemed like a lot of Pau holding the ball, it was clear that the Lakers excellent off-ball movement was freeing up guys for decent shots, and who better to find them than the best passing big man in the league (Nash also set several crushing, Stockton-like back screens to free up guys for easy scores).  Pau for once looked comfortable in the offense, with kudos to D’Antoni for coming up with a scheme to highlight the immense skills of all of our players.

The Nash-Dwight PNR was also heavily featured, with Nash making only passes he can make to Dwight in traffic, with Dwight either controlling them for an easy score, or more often, kicking out to shooters.  And when it is Kobe Bryant who is wide open on the weak-side, the opposition feels so defenseless.

With this game, the Lakers showed that they can clamp down on defense (allowing only 21 points in the 4th) and execute their game in crunch time (34 points in the 4th) with efficiency.  They could have folded; they could have given up and just moved on the Christmas.  But they didn’t.  And for them, this could be the turning point in the season.  With the return of Nash, their offense will almost certainly only get better, and if they can play with the defensive effort they gave in the 4th and OT with any consistency, they can become the juggernaut we all expected they would be at the season’s outset.

-Zephid

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