Through 4 games the Lakers are 2-2 which, if we’re being honest is a bit of a surprise. After playing 3 contenders to reach the western conference finals and a borderline eastern playoff team, 0-4 wouldn’t have been a surprise and 1-3 would have been viewed as the most likely scenario. The team’s .500 record doesn’t make this team a world beater by any means, but it does show that they’re a bit more competitive than some would have thought. Whether that lasts is another story, but as of now the Lakers look like a feisty bunch that plays a style that can cause teams some problems.
The Hawks game was a perfect example of who this team can be. In the first half, the Lakers found their stride on offense, raining shots from the outside while showing enough activity defensively to give the Hawks some problems. The ball movement wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to create good looks for the team’s shooters and the defensive rotations, while also not perfect, were good enough to force the Hawks into some misses. The combination of both allowed the Lakers to build a comfortable lead they could carry into the second half.
In those final two quarters, though, the Lakers also showed how the style they play can lead to their downfall. Being reliant on making jumpers is always dangerous and when those attempts went errant, the offense got off track. Defensively they became less attentive and those holes sprung leaks the Hawks took advantage of. Kyle Korver’s second half shooting helped close the gap on a game the Lakers were controlling and down the stretch of the game things got tight enough where nervousness of a loss was very real. When a crazy sequence of a block/charge call went in Pau Gasol’s favor with the subsequent two free throws going down combined with Pau closing out on and blocking one last Korver bomb was finally played out, we could all breathe a sigh of relief that the team held on.
This is probably what a lot of games will look like for the rest of the season so I hope you have a strong heart. The Lakers don’t have an abundance of talent, a fact that will still be true even when Kobe returns. Kobe will help, of course, and his presence will give the team more structure in late game situations, but the rest of the roster is still made up of multiple guys trying to earn a place in this league and with that will come ups and downs that aren’t easily escapable.
In any event, the team is .500 through 4 games and that’s undoubtedly a nice surprise heading into a rough stretch on the road that begins tomorrow. We’ll find out more about this team on that trip, but even with those new things we’ll learn it simply adds to the things we already know (or at least the things we think we know). So, on that note, some more thoughts from last game and the trends we’re learning through the three before it…
*Mike D’Antoni has a problem to solve in terms of his rotation and it’s not necessarily a bad one, or, for that matter, an easy one. For the type of offense he wants to run, this roster is not balanced. He has three point guards – Nash, Farmar, and Blake – who all should see floor time. He also has three centers – Pau, Kaman, and Hill – who all deserve time. His answers on the wing are mostly unproven, minimum salaried players who all have holes in their games. His stretch power forwards are a guy who was out of the league last year and a guy who has never played the position before. But, in stretches, all of these players have shown capable and are worth giving looks to. Managing this is not easy and, this early in the season, it’s not exactly crystal clear how the rotation should shake out. In other words, put away your pitchforks for now as these things get sorted out.
*All that said, let’s not act as if we don’t have hints as to what’s working and what’s not. Jordan Hill deserves more minutes. Yes, Hill has become a “closer” of sorts who comes in late and impacts the game down the stretch to either keep a game close or help the team win. But, it’s safe to say he should probably get more minutes in other parts of the game to try and make sure the ends of games aren’t as close. Who those minutes come at the expense of isn’t perfectly clear, but one candidate is Shawne Williams, even if it’s not Hill who ends up playing PF. One solution could be to play Kaman and Pau together a bit more and then let Hill play C with the second unit he seems to thrive with.
*Another player who could see an uptick in minutes is Jodie Meeks. Before the season I said Meeks would probably play his way out of the rotation, but it’s actually been the opposite. Meeks is shooting the ball well, making better decisions with the ball in his hands, and still displaying the hustle the coaches love. Yes he can still be turnover prone due to a shaky (though improved) handle, but when a guy is giving 50/40/90 shooting through four games, he deserves his praise. Meeks could likely see some more minutes at the expense of Steve Blake who is still competing well and dishing out assists, but not hitting enough shots considering the opportunities he’s getting. I expect Blake to start to hit those shots at some point, but until he does it’s hard to say he should be play the team’s most minutes as he did against the Hawks.
*Pau Gasol had a dreadful shooting night against the Hawks and looked low on energy for some stretches. After the game it was found out he’s been dealing with a respiratory infection, so part of that can be explained/excused. That said, Pau must still find a way to be less of a long two point shot taker and more of a guy who’s working closer to the paint. Pau has historically been a good mid-range shooter so I don’t want to take that part of his game away. However, if he rolled more towards the paint out of the P&R rather than being a stationary target and popping for the long jumper, I think he can have more success and be more of a threat to the defense. Get him on the move some and he can up fake and drive, make the skip pass to shooters on the wing, or still just shoot his jumper. Basically, I want Pau to have more options, not fewer.
*The Xavier Henry/Nick Young swap as starter worked out well for both gus ys. I want to see if that will remain to be true, but I liked how Young looked on the second unit – he even drove and created shots for others – just as I liked Henry’s aggressiveness in attacking the rim with the starting group. I think Henry’s 2-4 from behind the arc isn’t going to be there on most nights, but his driving and foul drawing will be and considering the starters don’t have a guy who draws a lot of fouls in that group, I like how his game complements theirs. Hopefully this continues. Young, meanwhile, seemed a bit looser coming off the bench and seemed to fit in better with the free-wheeling style of the reserves. Maybe it’s weird to say, but his decision making seemed to fit in better with that group and moving forward I expect that to be the case as long as Farmar remains a reserve.