At long last, the Lakers got some three-pointers to fall. Just as important to their long-term prospects are the reappearance of Classic Pau Gasol and a turn toward physical, even nasty, play.
It's amazing what a three-point game will do. Last night the Los Angeles Lakers did some very Lakery things - they turned the ball over too much and got worked on the defensive glass - but they also did the impressively un-Lakery thing of getting a few threes to fall, and isn't that such a better look? Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Andrew Goudelock breathed air into the offense with some on-target outside shooting and, thanks in large part, the Lake Show attack was productive nearly the entire night. Only in the third quarter, when the Los Angeles Clippers' strategy of doubling Kobe on the perimeter forced the Mamba into six turnovers, did the offense hit a slow patch. Otherwise, the Lakers brought sustained pressure to the Clips' D and posted one of their best offensive nights of the season.
True, the Lakers have scored fewer than 100 points in a dozen straight games now. But readers of SBN Los Angeles are, aside from being good with money and great in bed, savvy enough to know that points per game is a misleading measure. Last night the pace was as slow as you'll see in the NBA, just 84 possessions for each team. (League average is 91 to 92.) The Lakers averaged 1.14 points per trip, which is a nice outing for any offense and a once-a-month supernova for the purple and gold. In addition to banging some threes, they got to the line a great deal (assisted by the Clippers' late intentional fouling) and made the most of their second-chance opportunities. Smart passing, energy to chase down loose balls and some smooth outside strokes: these things have come together for the Lakers basically never this season, but for the moment at least we can enjoy such rare luxuries.
In fairness, we should note that Chris Paul isn't Chris Paul right now. He's had a strained hamstring and hadn't played since January 14. He went 27 minutes last night but very clearly was not in classic CP3 shape. Though he dished out 12 assists, he shot just 2 for 8 and couldn't consistently break down either Fish or Goudelock. His flopping isn't in what you'd call midseason form, either.
The Clips had a subpar shooting night, which allowed the Lakers to survive their own grim work on the defensive boards. Blake Griffin and Solomon Jones combined for 11 offensive rebounds, and for the game the Clippers recovered 41 percent of their own misses. (Thus continues a bad trend in Lakerdom. After dominating the defensive glass for the first couple weeks after Andrew Bynum's return, they've recently slipped badly in that phase. Opponents have now rebounded 30 percent or more of their misses in six of the last seven games.) The Clips, though, put up only seven second-chance points. That speaks well of how the Lakers sustained defensive pressure over the course of long possessions. Even when the play clock was reset after a Clipper miss, the D stayed tight and guys continued to check shooters.
Some of what made last night a good one for Lakers fans isn't repeatable. Kobe and Fish won't combine to make 5 of 8 threes very often. Metta World Peace won't frequently resemble Scottie Pippen in his playmaking abilities. The offense will likely slip back into a frustrating longeur. But a couple things gesture toward a possible uptick in fortunes. One is the return of Classic Pau.
This has been a strange season for Pau Gasol. On many occasions he's looked a bit lost in the Mike Brown system, which has him functioning as the third wheel when on the court with Kobe and Bynum. He hasn't shot all that well as he's experimented with adding an outside component to his repertoire. But he's enjoyed a surprisingly strong season on defense, and last night he brought it all together. He was the best Laker on the court, not just because he had his shooting range down but also because he dusted off his full array of attacking moves. He was aggressive both with the ball and on the glass. Especially when working with Laker reserves did he seem comfortable and assertive. Perhaps it was the matchup against the smaller Clipper fours, perhaps it was the two-day rest that refilled his tanks, but if Pau can return to his All-NBA form over the long term, the Lakers' championship hopes won't be totally laughable.
Just as important to the victory, and to their prospects for a successful season, was the return of the Lakers' nastiness. The Clips cut them up in the first half, but in the second the Lakers turned the affair into a street fight. Josh McRoberts and MWP got physically confrontational (though not with each other). McRoberts got ejected. World Peace bumped and poked at Griffin, and was it just me or did he get into Blake's head a little? The Clipper star turned the ball over three times as their offense unraveled in the fourth quarter.
This is what the Lakers can do and probably have to do. Can they outshoot teams consistently? Not a chance. Can they use their size, strength and veteran tricks to turn games into prison brawls? Sure, that could work. In McBobs, MWP and Matt Barnes they have three guys who maybe aren't that skilled but can infuse a game with elements of chaos and danger. They can knock opponents out of sync, as they did in the second half last night. Fundamentally it amounts to a revival of ‘90s-style basketball, of the kind practiced by the Knicks and Heat 15 years back. Unless Dwight Howard flies to the rescue, this may need to become the Lakers' new identity.
Of course, it would help greatly if they'd make a habit of getting a few threes to fall. That really does make a world of difference.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.