I get to keep living in Los Angeles! Sweet!!!
After a tortuous start to the season, the Los Angeles Lakers finally recorded their first win. Obviously, the caliber of opponent does matter, and the Detroit Pistons are in fact a horrible team. They're not particularly good on either side of the ball, nor are they a collectively experienced squad. Thus, beating the snot out of them doesn't qualify as a sign that all of the kinks have been worked out and the Lakers will be just fine moving forward. I'm guessing Wednesday's game at the Utah Jazz will be considerably more challenging.
However, just because the Lakers are supposed to destroy lousy opponents doesn't mean it's a given to happen, especially considering how they've looked during the opening trio of contests. Based on the chatter online, Lakers fans were plenty capable of envisioning a loss, or at the very least, a dogfight win. Thus, coming through to meet expectations is a meaningful step forward. There's still plenty of work to be done, but a small degree of normalcy has been established, and that's a nice feeling.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. With Steve Nash out, the Lakers shared play-making duties.
No word on when the two-time MVP point guard will suit up again, but until that date, his ability to create for teammates needs to be replicated. On Sunday night, the lion's share of play-making was handled by Kobe Bryant, who set the tone early by setting up a diving Pau Gasol between the circles for what was eventually a second chance bucket at the rim. A lob was tossed to Dwight Howard for a point-blank score, plus 3-pointers were set up for Steve Blake and Darius Morris, the latter a jump pass that initially looked like a turnover in the making. In all, the Mamba dished eight assists in barely 19 minutes worth of first-half run, a key element in building a huge early lead. I've often said that had Bryant been so inclined, he could have molded himself into a top-shelf point guard. Obviously, the "one of the best scorers ever" path turned out just dandy, but Sunday night was a reminder of how good a facilitator Bryant often is.
In the meantime, Blake dished six assists, plus two more apiece from Gasol and Morris (whose first half was pretty solid). However, "Sweetest Pass of the Night" honors were earned by Metta World Peace in the closing moments of the second quarter. After dribbling toward the left arc, MWP spotted Kobe cutting down the middle of the lane, then busted a sidearm bounce pass through traffic with pinpoint accuracy to hit Bryant in stride. Kobe did the rest, shading his back to the basket to block the defender, then draining a rainbow reverse layup off the glass. This was the highlight-iest moment in a night filled with highlights for MWP, who played by far his best game of the season.
2. Turn(over)about is fair play
Much has been written this early season about the Lakers' inability to take care of the ball, and rightly so. Heading into this game, they were averaging nearly 20 turnovers per contest, which is just absurdly high, particularly for a team that's vulnerable in transition defense. Compounding matters, they'd been continuing last season's trend of forcing too few of their own, creating a worst-of-both-worlds situation. Against the Pistons, both trends were reversed. The Lakers went into ball-hawk mode, hounding their opponent into 17 gaffes. The first quarter alone featured seven, with Blake leading the pesky charge. Those turnovers accounted for 22 points, a welcome sight for a team still feeling out its offense. Scores can never come too easily, and these swipes generated a fair amount of sweat-free buckets. (Between the steals and three blocked shots each from Gasol and Howard, the Lakers were very disruptive defensively.)
Conversely, the Lakers took considerably better care of the ball. The quest didn't begin optimally (four turnovers during the first frame), but the Lakers then settled into a more responsible groove. They entered halftime with just seven turnovers, and the majority came as the result of trying too hard to feed Howard down low. Obviously, Superman shouldn't be detrimentally force-fed, but at least the Lakers were looking to bleed a considerable mismatch. (To say the least, Howard had his way against Detroit's frontline.) After intermission, they lasted most of the third quarter without coughing up the rock again.
In the fourth quarter, however, the reserves reverted to sloppy form. The ball turned slippery again, and the Pistons capitalized, pushing the gap in the scores (relatively) closer. Detroit's hole was already too deep to truly jeopardize the win, but the sloppiness nonetheless prevented a proper finish to an otherwise highly positive night.
3. Kobe re-entered the game during the fourth quarter.
Considering the third frame concluded with a 31-point lead, that should have never happened. However, the second unit's disorganized showing prompted coach Mike Brown to throw Bryant and other key players back into the fray. While the true necessity of this decision can be debated, it doesn't change the fact that the reserves weren't able to carry the momentum created by the starters. Against a team like the Pistons, this doesn't really matter. Against a better team, it matters a lot. With the exception of Jordan Hill, no reserves recorded two good halves of basketball. This is an all-too familiar dilemma the offseason moves were supposed to put to bed. Thus far, that hasn't been the case, and the Lakers will remain a vulnerable team until the bench carry its own weight.