Frontcourt provides much-needed punch

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The highlight of the Los Angeles Lakers' 114-108 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday was guard Kobe Bryant uncorking a vintage Vino performance down the stretch.

Bryant dominated Suns guard-forward P.J. Tucker -- one of the league’s better perimeter defenders -- over the final two minutes of regulation, rising up and connecting on three consecutive possessions with fadeaway after fadeaway out of isolation around the left elbow.

On the fourth possession, Tucker played Bryant over-aggressively and picked up a shooting foul. Tucker, visibly frustrated and helpless, smirked and eventually laughed. Bryant, sensing Tucker's frustration, smiled and gave him a pat on the backside.

But arguably just as important as Bryant showing the ability to still take over a close game was the impressive offensive play of the Lakers' four primary big men -- Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis and Julius Randle.

Bryant's heroics would not have been possible if not for the dirty work Los Angeles' frontcourt did earlier to keep the team within striking distance.

The quartet combined for 40 points on 18-of-31 shooting, 19 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and three blocks, pushing around the Suns' undersized big men inside and creating space around the rim to score.

Heading into the 2014-15 season, the Lakers' projected advantage on offense was their dynamic perimeter attack.

Bryant, Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and Nick Young have each shown the ability to consistently score and/or create for their teammates, and it was assumed the backcourt would grab the offensive reins.

In many ways, that has been the case this preseason. The Lakers' three leading scorers Tuesday were all perimeter players -- Bryant (27 points), Lin (15) and Wesley Johnson (15). But just like last season, injuries have a funny way of ruining the Lakers' game plan.

With Bryant still shaking off some of the rust from his return, Nash, Lin and Young nursing injuries for a majority of the preseason, and coach Byron Scott all but abandoning 3-pointers, the team’s offensive identity has been in flux. There has been essentially no consistency from game to game.

"There are just too many injuries," Scott said before the game. "We're not going to be able to do the things I want to do, as far as trying to find the type of rotations that we would have. But I'm just going to go with what I've got and see how it works out."

The Lakers' inside attack -- which was successful at times against the Suns on Tuesday -- has given them a temporary identity, even if it hasn't produced many victories just yet.

Scott's insistence on grinding out possessions, attacking the rim and posting up -- "smashmouth basketball" as Bryant called it -- has proven fruitful in certain matchups, especially against smaller, defense-challenged frontcourts like the Suns' and Denver Nuggets' (the Lakers' two best preseason games when factoring in the opposition).

"We have some really good post players on this team, which I think is very important to keep the defense in," Bryant said afterward. "Transition [defense] is a big thing for us. Getting back on defense, it's important to post the ball a lot, penetrate a lot, keep the defense at the rim -- so we have a lot of guys that are very good posters."

The results of the preseason don't matter as much as the process, and the Lakers know that. Despite the close loss, no one was worried or down after the game. Instead, they were excited at what their frontcourt has shown.

Boozer, who scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, has been a steady source of interior offense, which is expected of the former All-Star. But impressive performances from the likes of Hill (14 points, 7-of-12 shooting) and Davis (11 points, 4-of-5 shooting) are surprising and necessary if the Lakers are to stay afloat amid all of their injuries.

Davis, especially, has stood out. The fifth-year player leads all players in the preseason, shooting 79.2 percent from the field. He has yet to miss more than one shot in a game.

"He's so great around the basket," Bryant said of Davis. "He's extremely active and he knows how to space very well. He rolls to the basketball very well. [He] has excellent timing and great jumping ability."

The Lakers' frontcourt is far from perfect, of course.

Defensively, there are still major concerns. Boozer has traditionally been a sieve (which is why he sat out most fourth quarters in Chicago last season), and Hill and Randle often miss rotations or take the wrong angle in help situations.

Davis is the only big man who played above-average defense on a consistent basis, as Scott and Bryant have pointed out on several occasions.

"Defensively, [Davis] can really be a force for us," Bryant said. "His timing and ability to block shots is remarkable."

Offensively, the team's floor spacing is generally lacking, as two big men are almost always in the way of perimeter penetration.

Besides their post games, Hill and Boozer have showed some range on their jump shots, but it only extends to 16 to 18 feet. Randle has shown the ability to corral a defensive rebound and attack in the open court, but he can still be reckless as a rookie. He finished Tuesday’s game with more turnovers (two) than field goals (one). Davis is limited to slipping screens and finishing around the rim.

Which is why the Lakers will still need Bryant's clutch shooting, Lin's pick-and-roll flair, Nash's court vision and Young's ability to score from anywhere if they're going to survive the deep Western Conference and remain in playoff contention. Those players are the fulcrum of their offense, and should form their offensive identity at some point this season.

But the Lakers will also need arguably their biggest projected weakness -- their interior depth, scoring and defense -- to step up and, if possible, become a strength in the right matchups.

Tuesday was a step, no matter how small, in the right direction.