The Los Angeles Lakers won the first game of the post-Kobe Bryant era on Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs, and the improbable victory may have provided coach Mike D'Antoni with some signs of how the Lakers should be playing without their fallen star.
Obviously, it'd be foolish to rely on Steve Blake as the team's primary backcourt scorer in the future. His 23 points (including 20 on 8-of-9 shooting in the first half) were the exception for the steady-but-unspectacular veteran, not the rule.
But there is something worth taking away from Blake's performance: Everyone is going to have to step up.
It's hard to find a bigger cliche than that, but Bryant ranked third in the NBA in usage rate, so it's going to be impossible for any one player to take up all of the slack individually. Blake's big night stands as an example of the kinds of outsize performances L.A. will need from its role players in its final regular season game—and in the playoffs.
For what it's worth, Antawn Jamison's hot fourth-quarter shooting and Jodie Meeks' clutch threes were also positive signs that the Lakers' underachieving reserves might be ready to take on more responsibility with Bryant out.
The notion of "stepping up" is a fuzzy thing, though. D'Antoni is going to have to employ some actual strategic changes in order to compensate for the loss of a player that dictated almost everything that took place on the court.
Chief among those tweaks must be an emphasis on pick-and-roll basketball.
It'd be nice if there was a way to be certain that Steve Nash was going to be healthy upon his return, but there's far too much evidence that he's broken down for good to believe that he'll ever be the expert pick-and-roll operator he once was.
Without the threat of the point guard doing damage himself, there's little reason to divert defensive attention from the rolling big man.
But assuming Nash, Blake or even someone like Metta World Peace or Jodie Meeks can facilitate a pick-and-roll at an average NBA level, the Lakers will still need to go to the simple set early and often. Many of the team's best offensive possessions during its April run have featured a rolling Pau Gasol receiving a pass from the guard and quickly firing a lob to Dwight Howard for a dunk.
These kinds of sets allow the Lakers to get the ball into the hands of their best decision-maker at dangerous spots on the floor—at the elbow and in the lane. Gasol is capable enough as a distributor to effectively run L.A.'s offense from those areas.
His particular affinity for setting up Howard is also a bonus, as it'll theoretically keep the big man happy and engaged on both ends.
And frankly, the Lakers don't have many better offensive options.
Given the talent it has, L.A.'s offense should be relatively simple to execute. But what about the other end?
Well, as it turns out, the Lakers became a significantly better defensive team the moment Bryant popped his Achilles.
According to 82games.com, the Lakers had given up 104.9 points per 100 possessions when Bryant was on the bench this year. But when he was on the floor, L.A. surrendered 108.1. That's a massive swing, and it's indicative of just how disengaged Bryant had been this year on defense.
Anecdotally, any objective Lakers fan (there has to be one out there, right?) would admit that Bryant mailed it in on D this season. He rarely hustled back in transition, showed no urgency in help situations and often completely failed to make simple rotations to cover open shooters.
There is no doubt that L.A. will perform better on D with Bryant sidelined. The numbers prove it, and though it was only one game, it's certainly compelling to note that the Spurs scored just 86 points on 37 percent shooting on Sunday.
It's hard to know whether D'Antoni actually gives many defensive instructions to the Lakers, and for the sake of his reputation as a coach, let's hope he hasn't been the one orchestrating the mess we've seen this season. But if he really is masterminding L.A.'s schemes, his job has gotten easier without Bryant.
Now he won't have to shy away from barking at players that miss rotations. He couldn't call Bryant out because of his value to the Lakers' offense and his status as a living legend. But the Lakers are going to defend as a team now, and they've got enough fundamentally sound perimeter defenders to do a decent job.
The key will be funneling drivers toward Howard and running shooters off of the three-point line. Perhaps Bryant's absence will make both of those things easier to do on a consistent basis.
On balance, the Lakers are worse without No. 24 in the lineup. But his absence gives his teammates the opportunity to step into larger roles without his overbearing presence creating uncertainty in their minds. Plus, the team will have a far easier time on the defensive end.
D'Antoni has lost a star, but he has gained some new offensive options and a better defense in the bargain.
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