Believe it or not, the Los Angeles Lakers are finally at .500 again after winning five consecutive games. For once, no one has any complaints about Kobe Bryant scoring more than 30 points or taking more than 20 shots. When the wins come the right way, every one is happy.
Teams, those that aspire for greatness, take pride in good defense. For what was probably the first time this season, the Los Angeles Lakers reaped the fruit of signing Dwight Howard. He didn’t cost them the win with bad free throw shooting (6-9) and his presence made it very hard for the New York Knicks to get the kind of looks that made them so efficient this season. Maybe it was a one time thing, but the kind of passion and aggression we saw from the Lakers on defense, beginning with Metta World Peace during the earlier stages of the game, is something that can really push this team forward.
What’s different? Maybe Steve Nash. We’re not seeing exactly brilliant offense from the Lakers, but things felt just a bit more right. Pau Gasol was struggling (5-13 from the field), but the Lakers overcame. Kobe Bryant was his usual self, but didn’t take as many bad or tough shots as he usually makes. Both he and others credited their good looks on the basket to the return of Steve Nash. Nash finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds and 11 assists, exposing the Knicks problems on defense a lot of times.
And yet, there were the usual problems for most of the game when it comes to the Lakers defense. Not the pick n’ roll, but their willingness to run back and avoid getting scored upon in transition. In the fourth quarter they did clamp down as the Knicks played right into their hands with slower, more predictable basketball, while J.R. Smith was going wild with his shooting. Carmelo Anthony took tough shots, as Raymond Felton just had a bad day in both his own scoring (5-19 from the field) and the ability to create for others.
That’s where Dwight Howard’s presence came in. You can look at the Knicks’ shooting percentages, only 9-26 from beyond the arc, and say that LA just played terrific perimeter defense. That’s true only in the case of World Peace, who gave Carmelo Anthony a very hard time, despite the 34 points. Dwight Howard changes the way an offense plays when the pieces around him don’t break the mold. He doesn’t give in to fakes and gets drawn out of position, which pretty much forces players who love to drive inside, like Felton and Smith, to try and get their way from beyond the arc, usually not in the most comfortable of situations.
This isn’t the return of the future NBA champions. The Lakers won easy games before this one using dysfunctional basketball, and it remains to be seen if this was just an one-time energy thing or not. The questions still remain – can their defense remain a consistent contributor? Can Pau Gasol get out of the funk he’s in? Can Kobe Bryant keep scoring without causing too much collateral damage? One win, and even this current steak of five, has yet to provide the answer.