After Tuesday's lemon against Indiana, this was just what the doctor ordered. Defensively, there were issues, particularly when it came to stopping ball penetration. But the Lakers played with great energy all night, and the offense was souped up with a D'Antonian engine. As always, work remains to be done, but this win, which pushed the Lakers to .500, represents a potential step in the right direction.
1) Dwight Howard looked as "Dwight Howard-y" as we've seen all season
Howard's messy departure from Orlando, which directly coincided with Stan Van Gundy's dismissal, left Superman branded as something of a coach killer. But tonight he looked like a brown-nosing coach's pet. As Dave McMenamin noted before the game, assistant coach Dan D'Antoni had the following message written on the locker room white board:
Well, never let it be said the guy doesn't follow marching orders. From the moment Howard set foot on the court, he was clearly looking to put his stamp on events. With the first quarter barely halfway finished, he'd already converted four baskets and typically drew fouls when he couldn't finish. After slipping a high screen set for Kobe Bryant, he stayed parallel with Kobe as he rolled to the bucket, setting himself up nicely for the eventual dump-off pass. The court was run after a Denver miss, which resulted in an over-the-shoulder feed from Darius Morris and a thunder dunk on the trailing catch.
The frame itself was concluded with a whopping 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, five rebounds and two blocks, but Howard's impact was also felt in ways not directly measured by the box score. He protected the rim to alter a driving layup by Ty Lawson and the new possession was eventually turned into a 3-pointer from Morris.
That first-quarter tone was matched for another three, even after an eyelid laceration forced Howard into the locker room for treatment from trainer Gary Vitti. Twenty-eight points. Twenty boards. Three blocks. Dude even drained a 3-pointer in the closing seconds, but unlike the center he replaced, there was no cockiness nor defiance fueling the launch. It was pure joy, and Howard grinned like a kid in a candy store after the rock found bottom. And after a night like this one, the guy earned the right to take any shot he darn well pleased.
2) If the bench can consistently replicate this effort, the Lakers become imminently more dangerous.
It's not exactly a government secret that the Lakers' second unit hasn't exactly displayed the reliability of a Swiss watch. For every quality outing, two or three duds have typically followed, and this has placed serious pressure on the starters. It's important for the reserves to carry their weight, but playing in a system like Mike D'Antoni's, it's doubly imperative. Supremely heavy minutes among the starters to offset a weak bench will eventually result in burnout come playoff time, especially with a first five collectively long in the tooth. Tonight, however, the bench stepped up to meet their responsibilities in a huge way.
As I've said many times all season, the key to a prolific bench is ultimately Antawn Jamison, the most accomplished, proven scorer in the bunch, the one who commands the most attention from a defense. Tonight he forced Denver's defense to put five heads on a swivel, as he managed to do damage in a variety of spots on the court. Three-pointers were drained. Back-door cuts were run to perfection. And predictably, he busted out the flip shot. His 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting led the Lakers in scoring, and when he's aggressively seeking opportunities, others are opened up for his teammates. Jodie Meeks also enjoyed a huge first half, canning his first five attempts from deep and creating tons of space for his teammates to operate. In the second half, another two fell. Twenty-one points in all, making him the third-leading scorer among Lakers. On our Twitter timeline, Tweeps had themselves a ball concocting nicknames to celebrate the explosion. Whether you prefer he be called "Jodie 3eeks," "Jodie M33ks," or, as I suggested, "Jod3 M33ks," the guy's prowess from deep added a desperately needed dimension for the Lakers moving forward.
In the meantime, Chris Duhon's night lacked his fellow bench-mate's explosiveness, but he quietly chipped in eight assists and provided a steady presence quarterbacking the second unit.
Obviously, it's not realistic to expect the bench to consistently set the Lakers' scoring pace. But it's also not necessary. They simply need to form a unit that must be accounted for. Tonight, they fit that bill and then some.
3)Kenneth Faried was kept off the glass.
In a preview conducted with Roundball Mining Company's Joe Rush, I singled out Faried as a key to defending Denver. The guy is an absolute beast on the boards, and he crushes it on the offensive glass. That nose for the ball often equals second-chance opportunities for the Nuggets, and given their ability to score with just one possession, allowing them extra opportunities to cash in can be deadly. Friday, The Manimal collected just two rebounds in all and just one offensive board. In turn, the Nuggets scored just 14 second-chance points, which helped the Lakers maintain a comfortable distance between them and their guests.
4) Pau Gasol still doesn't look right.
Several nice sequences were enjoyed, and along with Bryant and Duhon, Gasol led the team with eight dimes. But for every good play, a misstep seemed to follow, and his timing was generally a step or two out of whack. I wouldn't go so far as to say Gasol played "badly," because that wasn't really the case. But his impact, particularly on defense, was sporadic, and more important, still carries the body language of a guy on the outside looking in and trying to find his place. That needs to change ASAP.