With the annual “Grammy Trip” set to start on the second night of a back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns (tonight), the Lakers finally have the look of a team that is starting to believe in itself. While they are far from as good as they can eventually be, outside of the unfortunate season-ending loss of Jordan Hill, the team finally looks relatively healthy from a physical standpoint.
Even with the injuries, the most telling weakness was the lack of mental/emotional synchronicity, if you will. Obviously, as top heavy as the Lakers are, the focus will often reside with the starting unit. More often than not, the impact (or lack thereof) of the bench will make nearly as significant a difference in a given game.
Put simply, now that everyone is finally set and in place, it looks as though players are beginning to not only accept their roles, but they seem to be embracing them. I realize Pau Gasol might still not be the happiest of campers regarding his new found reserve role, but I stand by the same position I’ve had since the slow start to the year: Playing Gasol with the second unit and featuring him out of the post not only helps Gasol return to playing within his comfort zone (15 feet and in), but it helps D’Antoni incorporate the stretch-4 he so covets in Earl Clark at the power forward position.
Plus, let’s be honest, an ‘angry’ Pau Gasol isn’t the worst of things. Gasol not only tends to play harder when upset, but you generally get his best effort when his toughness and/or ability have been called into question. If I’m Gasol, while I would embrace the responsibility of anchoring the second unit the same way Manu Ginobili has for the San Antonio Spurs for so many years. If I’m Gasol, I’m less concerned with starting, and far more interested in playing meaningful minutes down the stretch.
I’ve heard several comparisons regarding Clark’s skill-set and/or body type, but I tend to agree with those that see Clark as a hybrid between ex-Laker’s Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza. At 6’10”, Clark’s versatile skill-set and ever-developing outside shot reminds you of the Odom we last saw in Purple and Gold. His long, rangy frame and ability to effectively defend ball-handling small forwards and bigger shooting guards is what reminds you of Ariza. Make no mistake about it, Clark is still a very raw product, and has plenty of room to continue to refine his skills. What is significant is that while many of us remained justifiably cautious about whether he could maintain his (early) positive streak, Clark actually looks more confident and comfortable with every bit of invaluable game experience.
While every shooter goes through hot streaks (and cold ones), the Lakers are not only going to need timely baskets from both Antwan Jamison and Jodie Meeks, but they will also need as close to mistake-free basketball as can be asked. There isn’t a magical number of total points, rebounds, or assists for these two, but when they are both active and fully engaged within the flow of the game, good things tend to happen for the Lakers.
Steve Blake’s return, following a 37-game absence due to an abdomen injury (surgery), is reportedly an individual coach D’Antoni has cherished since his days of manning the sidelines in Phoenix. Although oft-injured in recent seasons, Blake has shown the ability to stretch the floor and the willingness to take and make big shots in big moments in the past. D’Antoni seems to believe Blake would be a perfect fit for his system. We can only hope Blake’s body will permit him to fulfill D’Antoni’s beliefs. Here’s a look at the upcoming trip:
I’m predicting a 5-2 road trip for a team that is currently 5-15 away from Staples Center. Either I’m right, and this team has finally turned the corner…or I’m wrong, and this team will find a way to disappoint with their effort tonight vs. the Suns. I realize it is a back-to-back situation, but quite frankly, the Lakers have dug themselves into a hole that requires tough road wins in difficult situations, and their current circumstances do not permit a lot of room for excuses.
Certainly, no room for moral victories from this point on. Each loss, along the way to their 17-25 start dug them deeper, and now each victory will permit them to slowly crawl, scrap, and claw themselves out. It starts tonight. Yes, again. Each and every night along the way of this 7-game, 13-day trip will be a battle. The question will remain, are these Lakers up to the challenge?
As battle-tested as they’ve been, they sure ought to be.