Are the Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook inching any closer to figuring out their partnership, or to hashing out a blueprint to better understand it?
The answer will define this team's season and determine L.A's championship stock. And each passing game without answers, if not profound resolutions, can be a setback when anything means everything.
For now, call the Lakers' 120-117 overtime win over the Heat an improvement.
But Westbrook was his usual amount of uneven. He tallied a triple-double (25 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists) and was a plus-10 on the night. He committed eight turnovers. He hit a few shots around the rim and even a couple of elbow jumpers. He also took ill-advised jumpers, including a pull-up three to close regulation. He attacked. He settled.
And the beat goes on.
His performance represents a refreshing change of pace. The Westbrook experience was neither all doom and gloom nor happily-ever-after incarnate.
The Lakers were at their peak when they dredged up space for Westbrook to attack, and when he actually attacked it. Five of his nine shot attempts in the paint and restricted area came during the fourth quarter. He dropped six of his 14 assists in that final frame, as well.
Not surprisingly, that stretch coincided with the Lakers pivoting away from dual-big combinations. Except for the brief stretch Howard logged before fouling out, all of the Westbrook-Davis minutes featured the former at center.
Los Angeles may have unearthed a new regular lineup in the process. The quintet of Westbrook, Monk, Bradley, Anthony and Davis has now tallied 21 minutes on the season, but 13 of those came Wednesday night, including eight in the fourth, through which the team was plus-10 while holding its own on defense and the glass and generating enough offense.
The Lakers have now won the minutes Westbrook and Davis play together without Rajon Rondo or another big, putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the rim together. They need to create an environment in which Westbrook and Davis can both get going toward the basket. It fortifies the half-court offense and alleviates turnovers.
There will always be games where it doesn't happen enough, and Wednesday was no different. But the opportunity to get both going downhill needs to be there. More pick-and-rolls, too, please.
If anything, the Lakers learned more about their supporting cast Wednesday.
But it turns out Carmelo Anthony can miss threes in Staples Center (1-of-5). And Avery Bradley can still hit triples (5-of-8) and defend his butt off in crunch time. Malik Monk (27 points, 10-of-13 shooting) is a sleeping volcano that will more than rarely erupt. It might be time for Kent Bazemore to vacate the starting lineup.
More than revelations, in fact, there were reminders of what should and can work best.
Surrounding them with floor-spacers should strike that balance. This is not strictly a "Play AD at the 5 more!" mandate. Over half of his possessions have come at center. Maybe they need to increase that. Or perhaps this is a matter of fiddling around with the reserve minutes until they find a three-shooter combination that doesn't totally torpedo their defense.
Looming over all of these (rather painfully obvious) sentiments: LeBron James' return from his abdominal injury. Balancing the Westbrook-Davis partnership is a lot easier when the former is afforded total control over the offense. LeBron commands touches, because he's freaking LeBron and should command touches.
Opening pockets of space for Westbrook and Davis to operate in isn't as straightforward, even if LeBron qualifies as one of three shooters. His integration will always demand Westbrook gets displaced from the ball, where he is historically and presently ineffective.
Maybe that also works itself out. The Lakers have obliterated the competition when LeBron and Russ play with AD at the 5 while championing that ceaseless rim pressure. The sample is small, just 139 possessions, but we're trafficking almost entirely in small samples when the season remains younger than 15 games old and teams aren't forever at full strength.
Staggering minutes more stringently is on the table, too. The Lakers are getting their butts kicked so far when Russ-plus-AD-at-the-5 arrangements take the floor without LeBron, but those units can turn as the sample expands and head coach Frank Vogel fiddles with the personnel (i.e. less Rondo and Bazemore).
None of this is presented as a panacea. The Lakers are barely above .500 against a favorable schedule for a reason. They have warts to treat. Some of them may never heal. The Westbrook fit is that tenuous.
But on nights like Wednesday, in wins that aren't quite trademark, when the Lakers are more than one megastar away from full strength, the dynamic doesn't seem beyond rescue. It feels salvageable, workable even—less about individual concession and overhaul, and more about coaxing success by playing the lineups and style that make the most sense.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.