After a deflating six-game losing streak highlighted by defeats at the hands of the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers (17-22) have slowly rebounded and looked far better in recent games against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks.
A cynic would be quick to point out that defeating those teams at Staples Center is hardly a cause for celebration, but then again, great teams are expected to blow out inferior competition at home, and that’s exactly what the Purple and Gold did.
Obviously, the Lakers’ record disqualifies them at present time from earning the label of great, but the team certainly seems to be showing some signs of turning the corner.
And really, if the Lakers are going to have any shot at winning the title this year, it will be because they managed to fix their issues and get hot in the stretch run of the regular season.
To do that though, Steve Nash may have to play like, well, Steve Nash.
One would assume that Mike D’Antoni’s title hopes would revolve around the exploits of Kobe Bryant, and although that's partly true, it’s not completely accurate.
Consider the fact that the Black Mamba is converting a career-high true shooting percentage of 58.8 percent (true shooting percentage takes a player’s field-goal, free-throw and three-point field goal percentage and blends it into one stat). As a result his scoring forays have looked much more effortless than in previous seasons, and yet the Lakers are still a sub-.500 team.
This isn’t an indictment of Bryant’s gifts as a player or scorer, but rather an indication that Kobe can carry the 2012-13 Lakers for stretches, but needs a backcourt partner to help set the table for the rest of the players on the roster.
Let’s make this abundantly clear: With Nash missing time due to his injured leg, Dwight Howard struggling with his mobility and missing a few games because of an injured shoulder and Pau Gasol missing time due to knee tendinitis and a concussion, the Lakers would probably be challenging the Washington Wizards right now for the worst record in the NBA if not for Kobe’s exploits.
And really, that’s what makes the dynamic between Bryant and Nash so fascinating.
Bryant is a once-in-a-generation type of talent who currently is skilled enough to not only get the Purple and Gold to win games, but contend in the playoffs.
Nash, on the other hand, is quite possibly the missing ingredient that could potentially make this team a title contender.
His ball-handling, passing, basketball IQ and leadership unquestionably make him the perfect lead guard for this Lakers team. Watch him bring up the ball in transition or against full-court pressure and it’s quite obvious that all of his teammates trust him with the ball in his hands.
The former two-time MVP never gets rattled when defenders try to hound him and he operates with an impressive calmness that surely translates to his teammates.
Whether it’s getting players into the right spots, executing the offense to get others involved or calling his own number, it always feels like Kid Canada is steering the team in the right direction.
This is particularly important for Howard, because he is far more engaged in games as a whole when he gets a steady diet of touches on the block and on the move heading toward the basket.
The games against Cleveland and Milwaukee painted a perfect picture of what Nash means to Howard.
The big man scored a multitude of baskets off easy catches and was afforded the possibility of posting up, kicking the ball out to Nash and then reposting for an entry pass from his lead guard, leading to several scores.
Since returning from injury, this is the most comfortable that Nash has looked on the floor, and it seems as though he is much more in sync with his teammates and that his timing is slowly getting to where it needs to be.
Consequently, he has had a better understanding of how to deliver the ball to his superstar center and how to get him going. It’s worth noting that the former Sun has also figured out when and where to get his shots from, although he’s struggled from downtown in the screen-roll game. According to MySynergySports, he is only converting 12.5 percent of his three-point shots in pick-and-roll situations.
And yet, the Lakers have looked far more fluid on offense as players have moved well in concert with each other, understanding where to direct themselves to free up the lane for D12 but also to create passing lanes for Nash.
If we simply look at all of the games that Nash has played in this year, his production with Howard has been great. NBA.com tells us that the Lakers score 110 points per 48 minutes on 51.7 percent field-goal shooting when both are on the floor together in the 2012-13 campaign.
However, if we simply look at both contests against the Cavaliers and Bucks, those numbers soar to 118.3 points per 48 minutes on 58.5 percent field-goal shooting—simply sensational numbers.
What’s been most impressive about the pair’s offensive explosion is how it’s impacted Howard defensively.
Indeed, the former Orlando resident has been a little more active in pick-and-roll defense, challenging ball-handlers and even closing out on them when they’ve settled for jumpers whereas earlier in the season he was simply retreating to the paint.
He still gets himself out of defensive position trying to contest the shots of players driving down the lane, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to score against these Lakers because D12 is no longer simply escorting opponents to the rim. Instead he is making himself an imposing figure in the paint and contesting shots with control and better timing, which limits the dish off possibilities for opponents.
And again, although the sample size is quite small, the statistics reflect this new Lakers reality.
According to NBA.com, when Nash and Howard have been on the court together in the two games preceding last night’s contest against Miami, the Lakers have yielded only 86.2 points per 48 minutes on 34.2 percent field-goal shooting.
Granted, not all of the credit can be given to the guard-center tandem considering that Bryant’s defensive intensity has been far better as of late than at any other point in time in the season. His contributions on both sides of the ball have benefitted his teammates, and he is obviously part of the formula that will help turn around the Lakers’ season.
That being said, Nash has a lot of deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball that can occasionally put his teammates in a bind, but what he brings to the table offensively not only makes up for his defensive shortcomings, it engages Howard and makes him a terrifying anchor, which in turn makes the Lakers a team with the potential to have the best offense and defense in the league…
And that folks, can lead to a title.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com's advanced stats tool.