The Lakers have won seven out of nine games heading into Sunday's seminal showdown with the Miami Heat. It's not quite the kind of streak that the Heat are on, winners of nine out of 10 with all of the wins coming by a margin of 10 points or more, but the Lakers will take it.
The Lakers' defense has been solid all season long, keeping them in just about every ballgame they've played, but the offense had been lacking. Along with the Lakers' recent upswing in wins has been an improvement on offense. They have topped 100 points in six out of their last 16 games after only doing it one time in their first 20 games to start the season.
The offensive turnaround has coincided with a less-is-more approach from Lakers coach Mike Brown. Known for being detail-oriented and a taskmaster, Brown has smartly begun to loosen his control of the offense and not call as many plays possession by possession, instead trusting his players to make reads and decisions on their own.
"For me, just in general, my confidence level has gone up with this team," Brown said. "Maybe 3-4 weeks ago, I started letting go of the reins a little bit because I started to feel our guys were getting it. I started to sit back and allowed them to do more things out on the floor because I felt they understood what we needed or what we were trying to accomplish. ... I gave them more ownership."
Brown wasn't coaching just any group of players. The core of the Lakers' roster had been to three NBA Finals and won two championships. They all have accelerated basketball IQs. When given the chance to think for themselves, they are capable of making the correct decisions.
"I don’t want to single that out and say because coach is letting go more, we’re doing better and it’s that simple," said Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher who has benefited individually offensively as the team has improved. Fisher's season averages are just 5.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting from the field and 29.1 percent on 3-pointers, but in his last five games he's averaging 8.2 points on 51.6 percent from the field and hitting 40 percent from 3.
"I think there are a number of reasons why we’re doing some things better on the offensive end and so I think it’s a combination of him trusting us and us trusting him in terms of not just whether he’s calling the plays or not, but the plays we’re running, the things we’re looking for, putting the right guys in the right position to be successful and I think most importantly, not just him letting go, but us as players saying, ‘Regardless of what he’s doing in terms of trying to orchestrate, the five guys that are on the floor are the ones that make the difference.’ So, as five players on the floor, it’s up to us to figure out how to be successful within whatever the coach is trying to do."
For better or for worse, Kobe Bryant put the Lakers' offensive thrust on his back to begin the season and figured he would carry the load while the team got up to speed. He ran his scoring up to 28.8 points per game, a remarkable accomplishment to lead the league in scoring as a 16-year veteran and he hasn't had to sacrifice much of his individual numbers as the rest of the team has started to figure things out better. Bryant has four games of 30 points or more in the Lakers' current stretch of winning seven out of nine games.
"I think we’re just reading each other," Bryant said. "Just playing off each other a little bit better."
The recent offensive improvement has even satisfied the Lakers' twin towers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, who have been reduced to go the squeaky wheel gets the grease route in the past to make sure they were getting the proper amount of post touches while Bryant's usage rate was soaring on the perimeter.
"I think we have a little more freedom as far as what we’re running offensively and also [Brown] leaving it up to our judgment out there to see what we [can instinctively run] to hurt our opponent and have a better flow," said Gasol. "I think we’ve been doing well offensively and we haven’t struggled like we used to at the beginning of the year."
Added Bynum: "We’re just playing. People are getting more comfortable. I’m getting more comfortable moving the basketball. I think we realize now that if we move the ball, we’re fine. It’s when we get stagnant and tend to do all isolation that we’re not that great."
All of the blame couldn't go on Bryant for too many isolations, of course. Bynum was guilty of not reacting quick enough to double teams. Gasol was guilty of allowing himself to become less aggressive when the offense dictated he set up in the high post rather than the low post.
So, it's improving and the amazing thing is, as Brown is giving credit to the Lakers' players for figuring things out on their own, Bynum gave credit to Brown after Saturday's practice for the coaching tweaks he's made.
"There’s a lot of new plays," Bynum said. "We put in stuff to kind of camouflage where we’re coming from and then out of isolations that we are doing, our guys are moving and expecting the ball. That’s the biggest difference."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.