The Lakers bench, oft-criticized the past few seasons, seems to have found a rhythm.
In Thursday’s 116-94 win over Minnesota, the bench combined for 52 points, 46 of which came from Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks.
“We’re playing with the ultimate confidence,” Jamison said postgame. “We’re relying on each other. We know what our roles are.”
Post Saturday’s practice, the 15-year veteran elaborated on the bench’s play.
“We have chemistry and a closeness with each other,” Jamison explained. “That’s been the difference as far as my play and the way the second unit has been playing.”
Their roles, as Jamison noted, are more defined compared to a couple months ago. With coach Mike D’Antoni transitioning in and trying to implement a new system less than a month into the season, he also had the task of mixing and matching the right combination of player lineups.
“The hardest thing was having to go through the whole bench to find the combinations of what I liked, and who I liked,” D’Antoni told Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell in early February.
Jamison sat six straight games because of DNP-CD’s in late December and early January. Meeks found playing time sporadically during one stretch in January sitting out two games, while seeing less than 10 minutes of court time in seven others. Darius Morris was in and out of the starting lineup. All the while, Blake was recovering from abdominal surgery, Steve Nash was healing from a lower left leg fracture and the Lakers lost Jordan Hill to season-ending hip surgery in the process, too.
“There was just a lot of stuff we didn’t get traction,” D’Antoni said. “There were a lot of injuries and a lot of things just didn’t go well.
Times are much different now.
L.A. has won 12 of their last 17 to pull within one game of the .500 mark at 29-30, and sit just two-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot.
“We really had to be patient,” Jamison said. “We knew we weren’t playing up to our standards and what we were capable of doing.”
That patient approach, has, in fact, helped aid in the Lakers turnaround – especially the play of the second unit.
During the month of February, Jamison averaged 13.2 points on 48.5 percent field goals, while also hitting one 3-pointer in 12 of 13 contests. Meeks poured in 9.2 points and nailed 23 triples at a 41.8 percent clip.
Blake averaged 5.8 points and 3.4 assists on 46.6 percent field goals and 45.5 percent from the 3-point line, but his impact on the court cannot be understated, even though the numbers don’t show up in the box score.
“He’s getting more comfortable with the team and what we do,” D’Antoni said of Blake after Saturday’s practice. “He is a very disciplined player. Defensively, he’s always in the right spots. He’s tough. He settles us down offensively. He’s always trying to make the right play. Sometimes you won’t see it if you don’t watch film and what we’re trying to do. But if you’re a coach, you appreciate all the intangibles he brings.”
Since Blake returned from abdominal surgery on Jan. 29 against New Orleans, the Lakers have posted a 10-5 record. In those 10 wins, the Lakers have posted a defensive rating of 96.6. Extrapolate that to an entire season and that would rank second in the NBA behind the Indiana Pacers.
Continuing that type of play over the next 23 games is the key, but even D’Antoni acknowledged this is the most comfortable he’s felt about the Lakers performance all year long.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “We’re finally figuring out rotations and getting guys comfortable and where they fit. It’s just trying to figure out what fits better. Obviously there were some problems before trying to figure out what this team needs to win. But I think we’ve got a pretty good formula down.”