The Lakers have had more exciting wins in this brief season, but none have been more complete and less reliant on extremes than this one over the Pelicans. By finally combining a strong offensive performance with very good defensive effort and execution, the Lakers made up for their loss against this same team last Friday by dominating them 116-95.
As with every win this season, the Lakers’ bench was a key factor in this one. The Lakers’ reserves scored 56 of the team’s 116, led by efficient efforts from Nick Young and Xavier Henry. Young poured in 17 points on only 11 shots, canning jumpers from all over the floor. Henry, meanwhile, added 15 of his own on only 8 field goal attempts, knocking down all three of his shots from behind the arc while also having the play of night when he hammered home a dunk over his former Jayhawk teammate Jeff Withey.
This contest, though, was more about what the starters provided. For the first time all season, the first five seemed to finally click, not only finding their rhythm but finding a way to maintain it for most of the night. And key to that was, seemingly, the shift that head coach Mike D’Antoni made with this group by putting a lineup on the floor that featured guys playing more in their traditional roles.Rather than playing a combination of a small back court and a super-sized front court, D’Antoni went with guys at their natural spots and it really seemed to pay off.
Instead of toiling away at shooting guard, Steve Blake stepped in for the injured Steve Nash and played a very smooth and controlled game all night. Blake probed the defense for openings, attacked when he found space, and, when he was able to draw a second (and sometimes a third) defender, made the right read to hit his teammates for open shots. Blake may have only scored 5 points on the evening, but he dished out 10 assists (to only 2 turnovers) and was the epitome of a floor general. Wes Johnson also slid into a more natural position as the starting small forward, rather than playing PF for most of his minutes. His production — 5 points and 5 rebounds — was nothing spectacular, but he played good defense on the wing and was aggressive when cutting to the rim and when attacking the glass.
The key to the starting lineup, however, was Jordan Hill. Moving out of his bench role and into the first group, Hill showed that his production when playing limited minutes wasn’t some fluke. Hill scored a team (and career) high 21 points while also grabbing 11 rebounds. Hill flashed his usual activity level on both ends of the floor and did a great job providing a physical presence in the paint, diving to the front of the rim out of the P&R on offense and challenging every shot he was within a couple of steps of defensively. Further, Hill showed very good chemistry with Pau Gasol, sliding into open spaces to make himself available for passes and ducking along the baseline when the Spaniard isolated in the post to ensure the proper spacing existed to allow for one-on-one work.
Taking a step back, then, it’s safe to say that while the individual performances were very good up and down the lineup, the bigger takeaway from this game was that D’Antoni deployed his players in personnel groupings and lineups that made more sense. Players were put in better positions to succeed by playing their more natural positions and that led to, at least from what we saw in terms of body language and how their games meshed, a greater sense of comfort from everyone. Beyond that, though, the substitution patterns and how bench and starters were mixed also made a lot of sense. The final result was a 10 man rotation in which every player saw good minutes and did so with a greater sense of purpose than at any other point during the year.
This isn’t to say that was the only reason the Lakers won. After dominating the Lakers this past Friday, Anthony Davis suffered through foul trouble for most of this game and was never really able to establish his presence on either end of the floor. With Davis on the bench, the Pelicans’ bigs had trouble matching up with Gasol, Kaman, and Hill on both ends which allowed the Lakers to control the paint and dictate the terms of engagement in the half court. Add to this the fact that the Lakers were playing at home and saw a lot of their jumpers fall and it’s difficult to just say “the rotation was better so the team won”. No, it was much more than that.
However, as noted above, the rotation and personnel groupings were smoother and the results were fantastic. On the evening the Lakers went with two primary lineups and both produced at levels that we’ve not really seen in the same game, for the full game, all year. The starters played 18 minutes together and posted an offensive efficiency of 115.7 and a defensive efficiency of 97.9 in those minutes. Meanwhile, the primary bench group of Farmar, Henry, Young, Williams, and Kaman played a combined 13 minutes together and posted an offensive efficiency of 114.8 and a defensive efficiency of 86.1 in those minutes. These numbers were definitely influenced by how poorly the ‘Cans played on both ends of the floor for long stretches, but you have to credit the Lakers for forcing them into a lot of bad shots, cleaning up their defensive glass, and then moving the ball and making the most of their offensive possessions on the other end.
Whether or not this lasts is something we don’t yet know. But D’Antoni may have finally found some lineups and rotations that work for this team in the long term, so beyond the great win, that is what should be celebrated after this game.