Referring to the 14th game of the season as a "must-win," even for a 6-7 team falling well short of massive expectations, is hyperbolic even by sports media standards. Still, after dropping the first two games of their three-game road set, the Lakers definitely were in "must play better" territory ... if not for the value of a victory, then for the value to their psyche.
To say the least, the Lakers leaped that bar, and more, on Saturday night, blitzing the Dallas Mavericks early and coasting from there to a 115-89 win.
It was the first road victory of the season for the purple and gold, one earned in fine style. Here are five takeaways:
World Peace hit his quota early
Last season particularly, it wasn't unusual to see the Lakers run their first play to Metta World Peace in an effort to quickly get him engaged in the game. On Saturday, MWP wasn't necessarily the focus of the offensive game plan, but in the first quarter, he found himself open frequently on the perimeter, where he took advantage and matched up against a much smaller O.J. Mayo in the paint. In all, MWP scored his team's first 10 points, on the strength of two triples and a pair of driving layups. He finished with 16 points in the first quarter. And while from there he didn't exactly drop the mic and head back to the locker room, any visions of him taking a run at franchise scoring records ended quickly, as he barely shot the rest of the game.
Still, the damage (from Dallas' perspective) was done. World Peace finished with 19 points. On the other end, he did good work gumming up Mayo, the Mavs' leading scorer. Mayo finished with 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the floor.
The bench was again a factor ... in a good way
For most of the first month of the season, the Lakers' bench has been a little like the process of getting glasses or contacts at the optometrist's office. He'll slip lens after lens in front of the patient's eyes, swapping them, flipping and turning until the vision grows sharp. Over the past two games, the Lakers seem to have found a little clarity. On the heels of his best game in purple and gold -- faint praise, no question, but nonetheless true -- Antawn Jamison came back Saturday with another strong effort. Entering the game early in relief to give MWP a breather, Jamison picked up a quick bucket on a nice pass inside from Pau Gasol, then another on a drive from the top of the key, with Kobe Bryant providing the assist. He finished the first half with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor. He would finish the game with 19 points and, more impressively, was a demon on the glass, yanking down 15 boards, including three on the offensive side.
Jamison, whose defense has (rightly) been pilloried throughout his career, even earned the Lakers a bucket with a first-half steal. (It only seems right it was Jamison himself who got the points, tipping in a Darius Morris miss in transition.) For Jamison to contribute in consecutive games -- and against the Mavs while playing a lot of small forward (he was at power forward Friday) -- was encouraging.
He wasn't the only reserve who did good things. While Jodie Meeks remains a risky proposition off the dribble, as a shooter he had another good night, registering three triples in five tries, all on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Meeks has an incredibly quick release and doesn't require much space. Playing with the right guys who can draw attention and deliver the ball, Meeks will knock down the open shot. In Dallas, both of his second-quarter 3-balls were assisted off penetration, first from World Peace, then from Kobe.
Jordan Hill's playing time was again short (10 minutes), but he contributed with a pair of offensive rebounds, one of which became Meeks' first triple of the game. Chris Duhon limited mistakes (zero turnovers in 16 minutes, 40 seconds on a night the Lakers finished with 19), hit a 3 and dished out three assists. Overall, the Lakers' reserves did what they're supposed to do -- fill roles and try to be a positive influence. As coach Mike D'Antoni continues working combinations and learning his players' skill sets, there's some hope the group will gain real consistency.
With his guys a little leg weary following Friday's loss to the Grizzlies, D'Antoni treated his first-half substitution pattern almost like a hockey game. Guys were moving quickly in and out of the lineup, no doubt creating some newer floor combinations but, more important, keeping everyone fresh. Combined with what I'm sure was a healthy dose of motivation-generating frustration and embarrassment over their performances in Sacramento and Memphis, the adjustment helped keep the energy up and the play crisp over a dominant first half for the Lakers.
The Lakers also ran more Kobe/Dwight Howard pick-and-rolls, with success. D'Antoni talks a lot about pace. Not necessarily running up and down the floor, but playing quickly and with purpose, even if a shot comes 20 ticks into a possession. On Saturday night, particularly early, that's exactly what the Lakers did.
The balance was spectacular
The Lakers rolled up 36 points in the first quarter, and Kobe (if memory and my notes serve) didn't take a shot but contributed with four assists. He took a few before halftime, but his 19 points came on 11 shots and 6-of-8 from the line. World Peace had his 19, as did Jamison. Nobody had more than 11 field goal attempts. That the Lakers rolled up 115 points without any individual player hitting 20 is impressive. Six Lakers finished in double figures.
Gasol was far more active; Howard looked better, too
The raw numbers weren't spectacular -- Gasol finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a block, while Howard had 15 points and seven boards --- but both were far more active, Gasol in particular. One night after complaining about a lack of post touches, Gasol was the focus of the team's first offensive possession, as the Lakers tried to force feed him the ball on the right block. It didn't work, but it set the tone. Credit D'Antoni for moving guys around a little when both Gasol and Howard were on the floor. But some of it was simply Gasol raising his energy level and making himself the first guy down the floor to establish post position. Once he was there, Gasol didn't hesitate. Feeling a little better about himself, Pau was more aggressive on the perimeter, as well, putting the ball on the floor.
This is the sort of Gasol the Lakers must have on a game-to-game basis, as he had been absolutely absent to this point on the trip.
Howard, meanwhile, was active when Gasol had the ball, diving on a couple of occasions to make himself available on the pass. Defensively, his rebounding numbers weren't off the charts, but Howard blocked two shots, altered countless others and generally intimidated anyone in white entering the paint. Even better, instead of having the ball slapped from his hands, as had been the trend this season, Howard got his own mitts on the ball, with five steals.
Both bigs played a major role in a very strong defensive effort for the Lakers, holding Dallas to 37 percent shooting and forcing 15 turnovers, one better than their season average.