- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- First and foremost, Friday was a reminder.
Yes, there is a formula for these Los Angeles Lakers players and their coach to win games. They can be dominant and lead an entire game from start to finish without firing Mike D'Antoni or trading Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard.
That was evident in their 102-84 shellacking of the Utah Jazz.
If they share the ball and work together on defense and come out with a burst of energy to be the team playing from ahead the entire game rather than expending precious mental and physical energy always trying to claw their way back from behind, the game can actually come pretty easy to them.
But Friday's stop-the-bleeding win will mean nothing if they don't commit to the blueprint they've mapped out for themselves.
In other words, the most important thing about the Lakers' win over the Jazz on Friday is how it gets them to play in their game Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When a win brings you only from eight games under .500 to seven games under .500 and it's past the midway point of the season, you're not allowed to celebrate it. But there's still time to learn from it.
"I thought the energy was great, the sharing of the ball, the rhythm that we had on offense and the defense was solid all night," D'Antoni said. "You could tell there was a better feeling out there. We've been here before, and now it's up to us to keep it that way. Obviously, tonight is one step in a series of many, but I was just really pleased at how good it feels offensively and defensively."
D'Antoni should feel good, if only temporarily, for sticking to his principles. While his team was in the midst of a terrible slump, losing four straight and 10 of its past 12, he maintained the offense could and would work with this group and that defense was the real issue that had to be shored up.
The offense hummed against Utah, with Kobe Bryant taking on yet another adjusted role to help the team move forward. Just as Bryant provided a jolt on the defensive end by guarding the opposition's primary ball handler and not only disrupting things, but helping Steve Nash from unfavorable 1-on-1 matchups, this time Bryant shouldered more of the ballhandling duties and was the one initiating the pick-and-rolls part of the time and helping Nash get more favorable looks at the basket to call his own number.
"Sometimes maybe we rely too much on Steve and we have to get Kobe involved," D'Antoni said. "He's one of the best pick-and-roll guys in the league."
Not only did Bryant's running screen-roll actions allow him to pick up 14 assists (one short of his career high and also just two fewer than the 16 Utah had as a team), but it also allowed him to dribble in rhythm to the high post, where he is more effective shooting the ball (7-for-10 from the field) than he has been when he's stuck on the perimeter waiting for Nash to pass it to him. It also gave Nash the space to shoot it himself (15 points on 6-for-11 shooting) and saved some of his energy so he could use that space.
Of course, Bryant didn't just help Nash, he also helped Howard tremendously. The only way the Lakers will have any chance of making an improbable playoff run is for Bryant and Howard to find a rhythm together. Whether that team meeting in Memphis helped them both realize it, there was a cohesion between the two against the Jazz. Howard finished with more points (17 to 14) and more shots (12 to 10) than Bryant and the inertia he built up on offense helped him put up the 13 rebounds and two blocks and be the beast on the defensive end that he was.
"I thought Kobe was brilliant," Nash said. "Setting the table for Dwight and getting the team going. And Dwight was obviously finishing and a big presence defensively. Those are our two big guns, and when they are symbiotic like that, we are a special team I think."
Of course, making things look even better was Gasol's maximizing his 25 minutes with 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists off the bench while playing with a fervor that had been missing. And the team doesn't look fully like a team if Metta World Peace doesn't knock down five 3s on offense while still helping to contain Paul Millsap to 10 points with his defense, and if Jodie Meeks doesn't make half of his six shot attempts in 21 minutes, and if Earl Clark doesn't continue to play like a guy genuinely happy to be on the floor and eager to contribute with seven points and six rebounds.
It was all there for a night. It can be there in nights to come.
There is a formula for these Lakers to win games, and it's not too late to follow it.
"We have to play together, we have to play for each other, and that's the way we're going to win," Howard said.
On Sunday they can prove if they actually learned anything.
7dAmin Elhassan and Baxter Holmes