Did the Lakers do a 180 on Sunday compared to the previous Sunday or what? After playing one of the most lackluster performances of the season a week ago in Toronto, which began a disappointing three-game road trip, the Lakers returned home on Friday night and set a different tone in how they played as a unit in their victory against the Utah Jazz.
Entering Sunday’s matchup against the best team in basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers had an opportunity to not only beat an elite team, but to show the entire basketball world that they aren’t the 19-25 team that their record represents. The Lakers did just that with a thrilling game to beat OKC, and they did it in impressive fashion.
Of course, the Lakers still have a steep mountain to climb just to make it into the playoffs, as they have to play at least .600 ball for the remainder of the season. However, with all the negativity and disappointment that has surrounded the Lakers this season, the last two performances have cracked open the gloomy clouds that have set up shop in Laker Land. With the Lakers’ Grammy road trip coming up after Tuesday’s game against New Orleans in LA, the timing for this progress is essential.
The biggest improvement that I have noticed, as far as intangibles, over the past two games has been with their chemistry. There appears to be more trust on the court among the players. Their communication, especially on defense, has increased, which has resulted in better defensive help and rotations. In fact, I haven’t seen the Lakers huddle up on the court during clock stoppages (between free throws) this entire season as much as I have in the past two games.
As Steve Nash put it (per Dave McMenamin):
“It’s definitely exciting because we feel more like a team,” Nash said after the OKC win on Sunday. “I think the last two games, it feels familiar. It feels like we’re pulling in the same direction and that’s a beautiful thing when that happens in this game.”
The Lakers have shown accountability for their actions on the court. The time for the blame game or pointing fingers on the court and in the locker room must be over if the Lakers want to make a push for the postseason. Perhaps that team meeting last week worked after all. The following is what Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard had to say about this matter after Sunday’s win:
Dwight: “The biggest difference is we’re holding each other accountable for everything that happens on the court.”
Kobe: “We’re doing a good job right now of just being real with each other and holding each other accountable. That makes a huge difference.”
The Lakers have taken the necessary step of playing together and playing for one another. The concept of team ball has been in high gear since Friday, with the Lakers posting a combined 55 assists against Utah and Oklahoma City. It has all started with the amazing string of complete performances that Kobe has put together. We all know that the Mamba can shoot; his 30,000-plus points prove that. Yet, Kobe’s focus to get everyone involved has been a game changer.
Kobe as a facilitator has completely changed the way the Lakers play and the way the defense reacts. Kobe has posted 14 assists in each of the last two games, while changing the mindset of the Laker offense as a consequence. When Kobe has the ball in his hands, the defense is automatically drawn to him. Bryant has done a tremendous job of late in not only penetrating to draw that defense, but more importantly finding the cutter or the open man. To simply put it, Kobe is leading by example.
In a lot of ways Kobe is playing as he did while Nash was out. Only now that Nash is back, theres more space bc Nash such a good shooter
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 27, 2013
The energy and communication, as mentioned above, of the defensive end has been very solid. We all know that defense was the main culprit in the too many Lakers’ losses, as the talent on the team is more than enough to score 100-plus points a game. The defensive focus has been sharpened over the past two games; holding Utah to 84 (averaging 98.5 points per game) and holding OKC to 96 (averaging 105.9 points per game).
These two wins were purposeful and meaningful as James Worthy put it on Sunday afternoon. The Lakers have slowly built an identity that connected them to the game and to each other that allowed them to finish and close games without falling apart. This feat in itself has been amazing since the Lakers were failing at every level to create and sustain an identity as little as a week ago.
The Lakers still have miles to go to get out of the woods. However, their performances over the last two game (with the OKC game holding greater meaning) have been the right and necessary step in the right direction. The win over the Thunder was just as important to the team’s confidence and psyche as it was to their current record.
Have the Lakers finally turned that corner that all of Lakers Nation has been grinding their teeth while waiting for? As long as the Lakers continue to play together with purpose for each other, absolutely yes. The key is consistency. The Lakers have found the formula that works over the past two games. Now, the Lakers must keep pushing with this new mentality and game plan.