Lakers' win streak sparked by improving defense

LOS ANGELES -- It sounds insane, but this season's Los Angeles Lakers might just be a good defensive team after all.

For the fifth time in their past six games, the Lakers (7-7) held their opponent to less than 100 points, defeating the Sacramento Kings 100-86 on Sunday night.

The Lakers have now won three games in a row, and four of their past six, in large part because of their improved and increased defensive effort.

“We are sticking to our principles a lot,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I think they’re getting to the point where they’re not thinking about things and reacting and sticking to what we are doing. They’re just following the game plan really well. The last part is their effort. They want to do it.

“I think because you share the ball on offense and everyone feels good about how they are playing that it transfers on to the defensive end and [you] get more team energy. I think it has shown in the last three games.”

Following Sunday’s victory, the Lakers have the 11th-best defense in terms of defensive efficiency, allowing just 101.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats. For comparison's sake, the Lakers' defense last season -- led by Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace -- ranked 18th.

On Sunday, Sacramento shot just 41.7 percent, including 25 percent in the Kings' 13-point third quarter, in what is becoming a trend (five of L.A.’s past six opponents have shot 43.5 percent or worse).

So, what exactly has changed over the past six games?

For starters, Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson entered the starting lineup.

When those two share the floor, the Lakers are a completely different team. In the 211 minutes they’ve played together, the Lakers allow just 98.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank seventh in the league.

“I would say just our will and effort,” Johnson said of the biggest difference when he shares the floor with Hill. “I think we’re really just trying to get out there and be disruptive, like [the coaching staff] has been telling me this whole season. That’s what they want me to do -- just mess the game up. They want me to use my athleticism and length to disrupt the ball.”

Indeed, Johnson messed up the game.

He had two steals, two blocks and a few deflections, none of which takes into account the looming presence that his 7-foot-1 wingspan creates.

“If I see any opportunities to be aggressive or double-team, I do it,” Johnson said. “The [coaches] are telling me [that the rest of the team] will read off me. Whatever I’m doing, my teammates will play off me. They have my back.”

He wasn’t the only Laker who was active defensively.

Pau Gasol, Hill, Steve Blake and Nick Young each had a block. Shawne Williams had three and two steals. Jodie Meeks and Jordan Farmar each chipped in two steals. Young had a steal, too.

It was the best the Lakers’ defense has looked all season.

“A lot of effort and a lot of being in the right positions,” Blake said. “We have been really paying attention to the scouting report and individual strengths and weaknesses. I think that really makes a difference when we are overall engaged like that.”

With 4:33 remaining in the third quarter, the Kings pulled within two points, 63-61, off a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute layup. It seemed like the point in the game when the Lakers would blow it, as they had earlier in the season in close losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.

Instead, the Lakers held the Kings scoreless for the rest of the period (0-of-9 shooting) and stretched their lead to 12 points. Sacramento was unable to recover in the final frame.

“There’s a lot more talking,” Hill said. “We’re rotating better and helping out on defense. The energy is there. We know what we need to do, and we’re just going out there and handling our business.”

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve.

Greivis Vasquez (20 points, seven assists) carved up the pick-and-roll, and DeMarcus Cousins (17 points, seven assists) capitalized off backline miscommunication between Hill and Gasol.

“Our defense can definitely be better,” Hill said. “We slip up a lot. We can definitely rotate better. Like I said, we’re starting to talk, but we can talk more. We just have to go out there and be aggressive. We’re not talented enough to take plays or take days off. We have to go out there and have a lot of energy.”

The biggest challenge to defensive improvement may come from within.

When Bryant makes his imminent return, the defense will have to make considerable adjustments to compensate for his waning athleticism and tendency to roam off his man. It's nothing they can't overcome, but even the slightest drop-off defensively would hinder their already low playoff odds.

In the meantime, the Lakers have an important three-game road trip coming up against the Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons -- teams with a collective 13-26 record.

The Lakers are just 1-4 on the road so far, but it’s more than realistic that they can ride the momentum from their winning streak and return to Los Angeles next week with a record above .500. To do so, they’ll need to prove their recent defensive performances are sustainable, and not a mirage.

“We can do it,” Hill said. “We can win big games. We can compete with the big teams.

“This road trip is definitely going to be a big road trip for us, but if we come out and do the same things we did tonight, we shouldn’t have a problem.”