It's always risky making snap judgments regarding the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has been wildly inconsistent despite their mix of superstars.
However, with a convincing 105-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday afternoon, the Lakers appear to be turning a corner under head coach Mike D'Antoni.
The Lakers' victory was their second in a row, coming two days after a 102-84 drubbing of the Utah Jazz. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Sunday's win was the Lakers' first over one of the Western Conference's top four teams this season:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Lakers: 1st win (1-8) vs one of the current top 4 teams in the Western Conference1/27/2013, 11:40:05 PM
What was so convincing about the Lakers' most recent performance, you ask?
Well, it all starts and ends with Kobe Bryant, the volume scorer who has, in the blink of an eye, redefined his game to make it more conducive to playing with superstars like Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Just like the team's previous contest against Utah, Bryant came out looking to pass first, using the Thunder's preconceived notions about his score-first nature to fool the defending Western Conference champions.
With Bryant looking to pass, things appeared to flow much more smoothly. A trend throughout the game, Kobe took advantage of the Thunder by employing the drive-and-kick to lure in defenders.
By driving and kicking from the baseline, Kobe forced the Thunder defense to collapse under the basket. That allowed him to feed shooters in the corners or an open Pau Gasol cutting through the lane, securing easy buckets that were previously hard to come by.
Hardwood Paroxysm's Noam Schiller notes that Kobe may even be more lethal when he's looking to pass first:
Noam Schiller @noamschiller
If I'm against the Lakers, this version of Kobe scares me much more than the 34 points on 26 shots version.1/27/2013, 10:33:28 PM
Bryant's selflessness was evident early on, as the Mamba totaled just five first-half shots, compared to six assists. Kobe finished with 14 dimes for the game, a number which ESPN Stats & Info notes is quite unusual for the 15-time All-Star:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Kobe Bryant: back-to-back games with 14+ assists for 2nd time in career. Last time was December 8-10, 2002. #Lakers1/27/2013, 11:08:33 PM
Although there was more to this game than just Kobe's performance, it's worth noting that it only took him two games to adapt. Kobe has always possessed this ability to be selfless, he's just never employed it on a consistent basis before.
ESPN's Beckley Mason notes just how unique Kobe is:
Beckley Mason @BeckleyMason
Kobe is such a fascinating player precisely because he has these Big O games that suggest he CHOOSES the gunner/mamba persona.1/27/2013, 11:17:12 PM
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
D’Antoni: Gasol has been “great” off the bench. He’d like to keep Gasol around 30-32 min., but couldn’t take him off floor today (36 min.).1/27/2013, 11:29:04 PM
Aside from Bryant, there were several encouraging signs from the Lakers' supporting cast.
With D'Antoni staggering the minutes of his two primary big men, Pau Gasol saw increased opportunities and took advantage. He finished with 16 points (7-of-10 shooting), four rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes off of the bench.
There were also encouraging signs from Gasol when he was paired up with Howard. On several occasions, Gasol used his position above the free-throw line to his advantage, feeding Howard down on the blocks for easy looks, most of which resulted in the big man being sent to the free-throw line.
Apparently we're not the only ones who have taken notice of Gasol's improved play since his relegation to the bench (per Mike Trudell):
So long as we're on the topic of the Lakers bench, the performance of Antawn Jamison should not go unnoticed. Although he managed just 14 minutes in Sunday's win (most of them in the first half), he has climbed out of D'Antoni's doghouse and carved out a spot for himself in the rotation.
Scoring 12 points on an efficient 4-of-6 shooting, the Lakers could do much worse than having to use Jamison as a spark plug off of the bench. Aside from Kobe and the bench, there was one other notable change to the Lakers offense in Sunday's win.
Steve Nash seemingly switched roles with Bryant (although Kobe did lead the team with 21 points), scoring 17 points compared to just five assists. Nash benefited from Kobe's new, unselfish outlook, which made the Canadian point man more of a pure scorer.
Hitting on 6-of-11 shots (2-of-4 from three), Nash looked confident, flashing his trademark one-footed jumper, which the 38-year-old has established as his signature move in his offensive arsenal.
As a team, the Lakers shot 55.4 percent from the field on the day, overcoming a poor offensive showing from Dwight Howard (3-of-7 from the field, 2-of-10 from the line), whose best days appear to be ahead of him.
To cap off Sunday's unexpected win, the Lakers showed that they're capable of playing a solid 48 minutes of team defense. They held the Thunder to just 96 points, nearly 10 points below their league-leading average of 105.9 points per game.
Metta World Peace and Bryant keyed the encouraging defensive effort, as they locked up on Kevin Durant (35 points on 10-of-26 shooting) and Russell Westbrook (17 points on 6-of-22 shooting) down the stretch. The Lakers outscored the Thunder 30-21 in the fourth quarter.
It's a long season, and this was just one game, but Sunday provided the Lakers with a signature win that they can take pride in.
It's taken quite a while, but the Lakers are finally reaping the rewards that accompany solid team basketball.
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