On two levels, the Lakers' second unit showed up during the 87-78 Game 2 win over the Hornets.
They showed up literally, in that everybody was present and accounted for. Steve Blake was back in uniform after a battle with the chicken pox. And while Matt Barnes participated in Sunday's loss, he made only a slightly bigger impression than during the final two regular-season games, which he missed because of lingering effects of a recent knee injury. Clearly limited, he played less than nine minutes and without his typically perpetual motion. On Tuesday, however, the small forward actually resembled himself.
And they showed up figuratively, providing one of the most complete outings in recent memory on the heels of a dud Game 1 and on a night when the Lakers' one-two punch didn't light up the scoreboard. Blake's presence offered a night-and-day difference on both sides of the ball. There was much more organization after a Game 1 in which the reserves often functioned like headless chickens. Buckets came easier (five assists in 17 minutes). Tempo was pushed without losing control. And he did a credible job harassing Chris Paul during possessions with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher resting.
"Steve's big," Barnes said. "Steve runs the team out there with the second unit, along with Lamar [Odom]. He did a great job on Chris [Paul], too, so when we're a full team and we're healthy, we're a hard team to beat."
"I felt really good," Blake said afterward. "A lot better than I thought I probably would be."
Barnes' increased activity was subsequently felt in his production. Four baskets in as many tries for eight points, plus four rebounds. The extra burst paid dividends while completing a fast-break layup, challenging Aaron Gray into a miss at the rim and elevating enough to collect a shaky lob pass from Shannon Brown. Brown later chucked another terrifying alley-oop that Andrew Bynum somehow managed to convert into an and-1 bucket, but offset these poor dishes with a key fourth-quarter trey (pushing the lead to 13), plus a few excellent defensive plays in transition.
As for Odom, he played like somebody who'd been presented the Sixth Man of the Year Award before the game.
"As a group, we played really well tonight," Barnes said, smiling. "I think we defended really well. Created some up-tempo game, got us some easy baskets. It was nice to see us out there together playing well."
For the Lakers' bench, unified performances like these have been too rare this season. Maybe these players never jelled as anticipated because of continuity lost with Odom filling in so often for Bynum and a knee injury costing Barnes 29 games. Maybe they never jelled as anticipated because sometimes "on paper" and "in reality" don't cooperate. But whatever the reason, consistency has remained an issue, and with the Lakers about to hit the road, where second units typically struggle without the energy of a friendly crowd, the need for Barnes, Blake, Brown and Odom to succeed is magnified even more.
"I think we're gonna play fine on the road," Blake said when I mentioned the common road problems for second units. "I'm not even worried about that. It's not even an issue."
I'd like to buy in whole hog, but the present and recent history make things tough. The home/road splits for Blake and Brown reveal a dip playing in someone else's house. And even on the way to a title, it was a roller coaster ride for last season's bench, which placed a ton of pressure on the starters (and Odom, who might as well have been a starter, given Bynum's health issues).
Then again, perhaps there is reason to remain hopeful. This has been the best and most consistent season of LO's career, and reliability from the southpaw will go a long way toward bolstering the second unit's presence. In the meantime, Barnes' numbers are actually better on the road. (I guess this makes sense, as Matt pretty much lives to get under the skin of opposing players and fans.) Plus, the acquisition of Barnes and Blake transformed the Lakers' bench into a considerably more seasoned crew. While it hasn't translated to consistency throughout the regular season, the collective experience could perhaps means less of the frail nerves often demonstrated by younger players during postseason playoff games.
Whatever the future holds for the second unit in the first of presumably many road playoff games, the importance of strong performances wasn't lost on anybody.
"It hopefully gives them something they can carry over to the next games in terms of how they execute and what they did defensively," Kobe said of the reserves' Game 2 production. "It's very important. That's one of our strengths is our depth. No team can really match that so it's important for us to take advantage of it."
Added Phil Jackson, "We need that break that we have in the ballgame. We're gonna be playing three games in five days. [Wednesday], Friday and Sunday, with a travel day in between there, so the bench is going to have to support us."
"We can't depend on the crowd or depend on anybody else," Barnes said. "In that second unit, we have some guys, myself and Steve, that haven't won anything yet. And still, Shannon is very hungry and Lamar is hungry. ... So we just gotta play hard.
"We gotta be able to hold our weight. Build leads or hold on to leads or being us back into games. That's what we were doing earlier in the season, and we need to get back to that."