Metta World Peace keeps Lakers on track

LOS ANGELES -- So, who should get the credit for the Los Angeles Lakers' current five-game winning streak that finally has them back at .500 after a rousing 100-94 win over the New York Knicks on Christmas Day?

Steve Nash for finally making his comeback and dropping 20 assists against just six turnovers in his first two games? Kobe Bryant for his sustained excellence, putting up 30 or more points in his ninth straight game with his efficient 34 points on 14-for-24 shooting against the Knicks? Pau Gasol for staying the course and carving out a niche in the offense that was uncomfortable at first but now has him doling out six assists in each of his last two games? Dwight Howard for battling through his back injury and playing in 100 percent of the Lakers' games this season even though his health is really somewhere around 75 or 80 percent? Mike D'Antoni for sticking to his vision for the team even when they went just 4-9 in the first 13 games after he took over?

There are arguments to be made for all of those guys, but it's tough to imagine the Lakers having the type of success they are right now without the utter transformation of Metta World Peace.

He has gone from an unpredictable, out-of-shape, amnesty clause-bound, washed-up veteran to a rediscovered cog that keeps churning no matter what adversity the Lakers have played through this season.

World Peace was at it again on Christmas, spreading his particular brand of basketball joy on both ends of the floor, scoring 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting off the bench, while also keeping Carmelo Anthony in check as best he could on defense.

"I want to say it's inspired, but this is what he's been doing the whole year," Nash said. "He pounds on the best player on the other team. He gets his hands on a lot of balls. Rebounds. Scores. Makes threes. I mean, he's playing phenomenal, he's a great teammate and he's a huge part of why we're able to win."

World Peace is averaging 17.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals during the Lakers' five-game winning streak, and in the midst of it, right after grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds against the Sixers, he was asked by D'Antoni to come off the bench.

He could have whined. He could have pouted. He could have outright laughed. "Wait, you're starting Darius Morris over me?"

But the only noise World Peace has been making these days has been vocal leadership for a team that needed a kick in the pants to get things going.

"Metta has been a lot, lot more vocal," Bryant said. "A lot more vocal in helping me with the leadership and making sure guys have that intensity and attention to detail and the toughness. He's been extremely, extremely vocal."

The Lakers had all but bottomed out five games ago against the Knicks, falling behind by as many as 26 points in an embarrassing nationally televised loss.

Some of that blame for that game had to fall on World Peace, it was his man Anthony who dominated the first quarter with 22 points, taking wide open 3-pointers hardly contested by slow closeouts.

World Peace had a different plan for Anthony the second time around.

"The last game in New York, all he had to do is play offense," World Peace said. "[Tuesday] he had to play offense and defense. It's hard to play offense and defense. Anybody that plays basketball knows it's not easy to do that."

After World Peace held him to just 4-for-11 shooting in the first two quarters, Anthony made halftime adjustments and finished with 34 points on 13-for-23 shooting, but World Peace continued to play hard on both ends without getting discouraged.

When the Knicks ran their lead to nine points midway through the third quarter, it was World Peace who scored a streaking layup to get L.A. going again. When the Lakers' defensive energy seemed lacking, it was World Peace wrestling with Tyson Chandler for a loose ball that invigorated a stagnant Staples Center crowd and elicited a head rub from Nash and a high-five from Bryant.

"You can't win without that type of effort," said Nash, simply.

Even though World Peace has been pulled from the starting lineup by D'Antoni, he has been granted the green light coming in as the stretch four off the bench.

"His contribution, we found it," D'Antoni said. "We didn't go to it early when he was a three almost totally, but him at the four puts a lot of pressure on a lot of teams."

Since coming to L.A., World Peace never was never so heavily relied upon -- not in Phil Jackson's triangle offense, nor in Mike Brown's post-up or Princeton sets.

D'Antoni has empowered him to strive to be the player who had eight straight seasons in the prime of his career averaging more than 15 points per game, saying World Peace "should" score 20 points per game in his system because he'll get 10 open 3-point looks per game (he was 3-for-6 on 3-pointers Tuesday).

"Usually (when opponents) put guys on me, they're able to take a break," World Peace said. "I'm just not used to guys trying to take a break on me. Over my career, they always put the best defender on me. Now, lately guys have been trying to put the worst defender on me and take a break, but no, I got to make these guys work and actually give them work. Not even make them work, just give them work."

It's been working for L.A. as World Peace's on-court production has given substance and weight to the words he says.

"Metta will drag you across that line," Bryant said. "It's important for teams to have that because he keeps everybody on edge, which is necessary to win a championship."

When the Lakers finally got over the hump in the fourth quarter after trailing for most of the game against the Knicks, it was World Peace dragging them there. After missing a fast-break layup he did whatever it took to retrieve his own rebound and put it back up again to give L.A. an 83-82 lead with 8:23 remaining -- a lead it would never relinquish. (Even if the play involved a World Peace elbow to Steve Novak to make it happen.)

It says a lot about the power of what World Peace is saying when a guy like Jordan Hill, who has had his own position as a backup big man diminished when D'Antoni switched World Peace to the role, is praising his role on the team.

"He definitely talks," Hill said. "He talks on the floor and while he's on the bench. He's loud with it, so you won't miss him. He's just that guy you need."

And people are listening. Not just Bryant and Gasol, who have won a title with World Peace so they know what he's about, but Howard, too. Howard is still making bonds with his new teammates that will need to be strengthened if the Lakers are going to do anything special this season.

"I think sometimes people view him as some madman, but he's awesome," Howard said. "I love him for this team. I think he's a great teammate and he's been through so much and he can talk to you about a lot of things dealing with basketball and life and all that stuff. He's great. I'm glad he's here."

After 3 1/2 seasons in L.A., World Peace is proving the Lakers are just as much his team, his locker room, his legacy, as they are for Bryant or any other person tied to the purple and gold.

"When I first got here, I was in the room with 14 champions," World Peace said. "So all I had to do was sit in the back and watch and bring my basketball play. Now I'm in the room with just three champions, counting myself, so I got to talk."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.