If you had been in a coma since the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA season and just awoke today to find the Los Angeles Lakers at .500, you might have assumed Kobe Bryant had gotten hurt and that the Lakers' title hopes were dead and gone, along with the morale of the Lakers fanbase.
Instead, we have just witnessed the first sign of life from the alleged "superteam." They are obviously talent-laden with a former two-time MVP point guard, the best center in the game and perennial Defensive Player of the Year, a perennial All-Star power forward who's the best passing big man alive and one of the best four players in the league. The New York Knicks are clearly one of the two best teams in the East, if not the league, and the Lakers had a paltry winning percentage of just .333 against winning teams this season.
But more than the win itself, Laker fans were delighted to see how the Lakers were able to win. After the win, Pau Gasol was asked what quality made the the '09 and '10 editions of the Lakers championship teams. He responded by talking about how each player sacrificed and had defined roles on the team. Simple enough on any team; not on a team with four All-Stars who'd spent large chunks of their career being the No.1 option on offense.
It's not to say that any of them are selfish and wouldn't be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash's roles with their old teams were clearly a necessity given the roster makeup of the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns. But for these four stars to produce the synergy that every media pundit and hopeful Laker fan wanted to see out of them, they have to reduce their individual stars.
For the first time all season, that happened on Christmas Day. Howard focused mainly on defense and rebounding; his signature play of the game came when he blocked Raymond Felton's layup so hard he fell out of bounds along with the ball. Gasol focused on the pick-and-roll game and anchoring the second unit.
Most importantly, Kobe Bryant was able to do something on offense that we never thought we would see: hand over the keys of the car to Steve Nash. With Nash running the controls and getting everyone involved, it saves Bryant's legs and allows him to focus exclusively on operating out of the mid-range and post-up game.
None of this is without some help, though. Metta World Peace had by far his best offensive game of the season with 20 points, seven rebounds, providing three long-range shots and making Carmelo Anthony work for everything he had. The Knicks also didn't help themselves much in the fourth quarter by scoring just 16 points and going cold, abandoning what got them an eight-point lead in the third quarter by letting J.R. Smith and Anthony play undisciplined, low-percentage one-on-one basketball.
Nevertheless, recent NBA history has shown us that talented teams crafted from free agency and trades take time and often don't discover their roles or reach their full potential until something forces them to. For the Miami Heat last season, they always disappointed when their offense consisted of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade alternating possessions as the the lead dog and disrupting the flow.
They soon realized their best game was running every play through James, with Wade in a supporting role and surrounding them with shooters, a strategy Erik Spoelstra had no choice but to employ when Chris Bosh got hurt, Wade was playing on a bum knee and the Heat were in danger of the losing the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Indiana Pacers.
The Lakers have started a similar progression, and much like a quarterback in the pocket, going through your progressions and taking the hits along the way will eventually lead to a better result than bailing out and rushing it.
This win does not prove they are the best team in the league; they're not better than Miami yet. It doesn't prove they're the best team in the Western Conference; it's hard to say whether they'd be able to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder yet. And we're not even sure they're the best team in Southern California; the Los Angeles Clippers are sitting pretty with 14 straight wins.
Yes, there will be disappointing losses to follow, but if these Lakers can follow their roles with Kobe scoring, Nash controlling the offense, Howard controlling the defense and Gasol filling in the blanks, they can begin to realize their scary potential.