Can Los Angeles Lakers Sneak into Playoffs with Newfound Balance?
It's tough to take away too much from a 116-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, even if the team doing the taking is the long-lost Los Angeles Lakers. The T-Wolves came into the evening without the services of Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy, and saw Nikola Pekovic (their starting center) succumb to an abdominal injury during the game.
But a win's a win for the Lakers, who, at 29-30, moved within two games of the Houston Rockets and 2.5 of the Utah Jazz in the race for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They've now won 12 of 17 since falling a season-worst eight games below the .500 mark.
They've done it all with a more balanced attack, not unlike the one on display on Thursday night at Staples Center. The Lakers logged six players in double figures this time around, with (Surprise! Surprise!) Kobe Bryant scoring a game-high 33 points on efficient 13-of-22 shooting. Seeing Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in double-digit territory was hardly a shock to anyone's system either, though it's certainly been nice to see both of them looking less hampered by injury each time out.
Of greater interest is the improved play of L.A.'s supporting cast. Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake combined for a strong 46 points off the bench. Along the way, Jamison crashed the boards (eight rebounds), Meeks made Minny pay for employing a zone defense with four three-pointers and Blake stuffed the stat sheet with seven rebounds and six assists.
By and large, those three have been playing much better ball since late January—the 29th, to be exact. In that time, Jamison has scored 10 or more points on 12 occasions, and Meeks has knocked down 41.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
The 29th, by the way, is the day Steve Blake stepped back into the fold against the New Orleans Hornets after recovering from abdominal surgery.
His contributions to that 111-106 win (two points, two rebounds, four assists) were relatively modest, but his mere presence clearly made a significant difference. That game saw Jamison (16 points, seven rebounds), Meeks (13 points, two rebounds, two steals) and a still-healthy-ish Pau Gasol (seven points, seven rebounds, seven assists) chip in meaningfully off the bench.
Such has been the norm, more or less, for the Lakers' reserves since then, even more so in Gasol's absence. No longer need Jamison and Meeks worry about whether they'll play on any given night now that their value to the Lakers' cause has been clearly established. Whether anyone likes it or not, the Lakers won't win without 'Tawn taking up the mantle for the team's depleted frontcourt, or without Meeks stretching opposing defenses with his quick stroke.
And no longer need Mike D'Antoni lean on the likes of Chris Duhon and Darius Morris to spell the 39-year-old Nash at the point. Now he can turn to Blake, who D'Antoni once claimed he'd wanted to coach for a decade, to serve as a relatively reliable backup.
It's still too soon to suggest that the pieces have all fallen perfectly into place for D'Antoni's Lakers. After all, they're still pining for the .500 mark and will need plenty of help to avoid missing the postseason.
That being said, it's not at all far-fetched to say that the Lakers may finally have stumbled upon a more "natural" order. Kobe and Jamison score. Nash and Meeks shoot. The two Steves facilitate. Dwight rebounds, picks-and-rolls and intimidates on the defensive end. Metta World Peace and Earl Clark fill in the gaps as starters.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
It may seem a bit odd, but for now, it works.
How that changes once Gasol returns from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot is anyone's best guess. Chances are, he'll have to settle back into a role as the focal point of L.A.'s second unit, just as Amar'e Stoudemire and Danny Granger have with the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, respectively.
And just as Pau had with the Lakers prior to his most recent setback.
But the need to solve that particular problem remains a ways off. Gasol is off crutches and has been cleared to resume the use of an elliptical machine (h/t insidesocal.com) but will probably need another few weeks before he's ready to play again and isn't expected (by some) to have much of an impact on the Lakers' ongoing playoff push.
Luckily for the Lakers, they seem to be getting by well enough without him.
Not that they couldn't use a skilled seven-footer of Gasol's ilk. The Lakers will need all the help they can get in the month to come. They play 10 of their 15 games during the month of March on the road, where they've thus far tallied an abysmal record of 10-19.
Clearly, that'll have to change sooner rather than later if the Purple and Gold hope to be present past the middle of April.
With this current, kooky concoction, they just might be able to.
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