Lakers center Andrew Bynum looks to pass over the double-team defense of… (D. Ross Cameron / McClatchy-Tribune )
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Kobe Bryant didn't need to feel pressured into expediting his recovery from a sore left shin. Instead, the Lakers went 5-2 in his absence while Bryant rocked some pretty suits as he coached on the sidelines. But that will all end soon since Bryant expects to suit up Friday at San Antonio for the first time in 11 days. Before that happens, it's time to reflect on a few things that stood out during his absence.
1. The Lakers relied more on ball movement. Overwhelming double teams on Andrew Bynum may have played a large part in the Lakers' losses to Phoenix and San Antonio. During Bryant's seven-game absence, Pau Gasol and Bynum took 265 of the team's 586 field-goal attempts. Though they made 124 of them. teams held the Lakers' bigs below a 50% completion rate in four of the seven games. But in their five wins the Lakers' strong ball movement largely nullified those swarming defenses in the post. Because of that, the Lakers benefitted by operating as an inside-out team.
Double-teams on Bynum were hardly a problem against teams such as Golden State and Dallas that just don't have the size to match the Lakers. But with San Antonio using Tiago Splitter instead of DeJuan Blair to limit Bynum's looks, a healthy Bryant would have made the Spurs pay either with his scoring or by creating better chances for Bynum in the lane.
2. Metta World Peace took on added leadership. During Bryant's absence, World Peace averaged 16.3 points and shot at a 59% clip, but that's not the only thing that made his performance so impressive. After all, in Bryant's last appearance two weeks ago in Houston, World Peace had a 23-point effort. World Peace's play also stood out because he took on more responsibility in organizing the offense.
He huddled teammates together. When World Peace met double teams, he happily facilitated effectively enough to average 3.57 assists per game. His 12-of-31 mark from three-point range included a combined zero-of-eight outside shooting drought against Dallas and San Antonio. But most of his perimeter shots came in rhythm. Meanwhile, the majority of his production happened on post-ups and drives to the basket. Aside from a bad inbounds pass that could have cost the Lakers a win last week against New Orleans, World Peace made smart on-court decisions.
That dynamic will change because Bryant will take more command vocally and in operating out of the post. So long as World Peace's focus level remains the same, he'll remain effective by channeling that focus defense and spacing the floor.
3. The Lakers mostly improved on defense. They held opponents to under 100 points in four of the seven games. Several things happened in those instances. The Lakers remained disciplined in controlling the offensive tempo to minimize transition points off turnovers and missed shots. They dominated the glass. And they appeared more active by not getting bunched up in pick-and-rolls.
Even if Bryant's attention to defense has sagged in recent seasons, the Lakers elevation on defense has nothing to do with his abiliities. It has everything to do with the Lakers channeling their focus better because Bryant's absence reduced the team's margin for error.
4. Matt Barnes improved his shooting percentage. The criticism over his inconsistency is overblown. Even when Lakers Coach Mike Brown constantly shuffled the small forward spot, Barnes stayed remarkably consistent in making hustle plays, cutting off the ball and making timely baskets. Still, Barnes' shooting during Bryant's absence skyrocketed to a 54.5% clip, a huge improvement over his season average (45.3%). The most vivid improvement happened from three-point range, where Barnes went 13 of 28 from the field despite missing all four three-point attempts last week against Phoenix.
Because of the Lakers' improved ball movement, Barnes found more shots in rhythm. Considering the bench's season-wide inconsistency, it's critical Barnes that continue to play with such efficiency even if he doesn't receive as many looks.
5. The confidence improved. The Lakers shouldn't feel they're a better team without Bryant, not have they ever suggested they are. But with the Lakers going 5-2 during his absence, they managed to hold onto third place in the Western Conference, give Bryant some needed rest and raise everyone's collective level of play. The Lakers will have to adjust their dynamic when Bryant returns. But their ability to play well during his recovery could continue with everyone contributing, albeit in different ways.
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