Winners of seven of their last nine games out of the All-Star break, the Lakers are within a half-game of Utah for the final playoff spot in the West. Houston and Golden State are just two and three games, respectively, ahead of L.A. with a little more than a month remaining in the regular season.
Kobe’s Offensive Outburst
After halftime of Friday’s win against Toronto, Kobe Bryant recorded 30 points, none bigger than the nine he had in the span of 96 seconds at the end of regulation to force overtime.
Bryant drilled three 3-pointers – a flat-footed, off-balance triple from the right wing, a fade away in the left corner going out of bounds and another one from the right wing over Rudy Gay to force overtime.
The Lakers would eventually take the game in the extra five minutes, winning 118-116 – their second straight double-digit comeback victory. The 16-year veteran posted 41 points and 12 assists overall, the first Laker to record 40 points and 10 assists in two straight since Jerry West in 1970.
“He welcomes that type of pressure,” Antawn Jamison said post Saturday’s practice. “He’s Kobe. He’s been doing that his whole career.”
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni echoed similar sentiments.
“The three 3’s that he hit,” D’Antoni said, “most people probably won’t hit one in a career, and he hits three in one night. It’s just unbelievable what he did. You’ve seen it before. Out in Phoenix I saw it. I was on the other end of it, so it happens. I can’t explain it. Nobody can explain it. He’s just great.”
Since the All-Star break, Bryant is averaging 33.7 points, 6.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds, while shooting 53.9 percent field goals and 44.0 percent from the 3-point line.
Just as important in the Lakers turnaround is Dwight Howard’s impact on the defensive end of the floor
“I think he’s feeling better,” D’Antoni said. “The biggest factor you saw last night (vs. Toronto) was I think you saw him jump three or four times after one ball. Before, his conditioning just didn’t allow him to do that.”
Howard blocked at least four shots and recorded three steals for the second straight game, and has four swats in four of the last six.
In nine games since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 14.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.4 steals, a positive sign for the coaching staff on that end of the floor.
In the Lakers 108-102 win at New Orleans, D’Antoni credited Howard with changing the game and shutting down the pick-and-roll, as the Hornets did not score for the last 6:47.
During Friday’s win, he blocked two key shots – one on Rudy Gay near the end of regulation and one on Alan Anderson in overtime – to keep L.A. in the game.
“The biggest factor is the further he gets away from the operation, the better he’ll be,” D’Antoni said.
Howard, meanwhile, credited an improved diet thanks to the team’s nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, to more energy on the court during his recent play. He maintains he hasn’t eaten any candy since the All-Star break, since sugar leads to fatigue a lot faster.
“We’ve been doing different things with our diet and it’s really helped us out,” the three-time Defensive Player of the Year explained. “We’ve had a lot of energy. The new diet has really helped us. It’s a sacrifice, but we all want to win a championship and we have to do whatever we can to win.”
Finest Five-Man Unit
A lineup of Nash, Bryant, Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace and Howard has posted a team-best of plus-50 on the year. In 75 minutes together on the floor, that unit has posted an offensive efficiency rating of 127.1 and defensive efficiency rating of 84.4, with much of that impact coming in the last two comeback wins.
That five-man unit held the Hornets scoreless during the last 6:47 of the game and just 4 of 17 field goals overall in the final 12 minutes to lead L.A.’s comeback.
The coaching staff went with this same lineup during a key stretch in the fourth quarter of the Lakers win over Toronto on Friday, too.
Much of the offensive success has come from L.A.’s ability to space the floor, while allowing Bryant to operate with Nash and Meeks spotting up behind the 3-point line. The coaching staff said the key, though, is for the players to show self-control on that end of the floor in terms of spreading the defense out.
“Just getting to our spots and having the discipline to stay in them,” D’Antoni explained. “A lot of time we break it up and we have guys clog up stuff. If we can keep the floor open, Kobe can get to the rim. When he does that and the defense collapses, he can pass it out to the shooter. It makes for a pretty easy game.”