We all know Kobe Bryant is arguably the most competitive and passionate player the game of basketball has ever seen. To him, success is only measured in championships, and there's no such thing as 2nd best. In the past 2 games, Bryant reminded everyone just how much he puts winning above everything.
The Lakers had lost 3 straight games on the road catapulted by a disappointing loss to Miami at Staples Center that could have gone their way if not for the 8 turnovers they committed in the 1st half. Facing a 17-25 record that puts them 8 games below the .500 mark, the Lakers were running out of options, and more importantly, time to give any purpose to the remaining 42 games of the season.
With half of those 42 games on the road and rounding off their season series with plenty of playoff-bound teams the rest of the way, something had to be done…now!
Kobe had already tweaked his game defending the other team's facilitator in hopes that it would answer most of the team's defensive woes by putting less pressure on Dwight Howard to also erase easy lay-ups and on his other teammates on helping out Howard as he goes after those easy buckets. It worked for awhile. But it wasn't enough.
Bryant then took the direct approach and asked Howard during the team's meeting prior to their game in Memphis if he likes playing with Kobe in hopes of finding out exactly what's bothering the team's biggest weapon on both ends of the floor. But again, it wasn't enough.
Knowing that the team badly needs more chemistry on the court and nothing can bring a team together quickly than everyone being involved on offense, Kobe decided to take the responsibility and accountability of bringing his team together by becoming the team's facilitator.
The result? 2 straight wins with the last coming against the NBA's best team, the Oklahoma City Thunder — their first against an elite team this season.
Kobe has totaled 28 assists in both wins and has only taken a combined 22 shots for 35 points. To maximize his ability and opportunities to make plays for his teammates, Bryant has been almost exclusively positioning himself in the high-to-mid post to force the defense to make quick decisions as Bryant backs his own defender down deeper into the paint.
Depending on what the defense gives him, Kobe would attack the rim, get loose for an open mid-range jumper, or as often happens, get the ball to an open teammate on the perimeter or through a cut to the basket. But because Bryant is the team's best threat on offense, the Lakers, as a team, are now finding it easy to score in almost every way they want to attack the defense — layups, dunks, lobs, dives, mid-range and from behind the arc — due to the other team's inability to make the correct play defensively as a unit.
Of course, the whole point in Kobe's madness is to get the entire team dedicated on defense. Has it worked? The Lakers held the Jazz, a team averaging 44.9% from the field and 36.7% from behind the 3-point line, to 42% and 21%. OKC finished Sunday's game shooting 44% from 2 and 25% from 3. The Thunder average 47.7% and 38.5% respectively. But here's something to note in both games, the Lakers didn't allow either team put up fast break points in the 20s.
That means 2 things: 1.) The Lakers controlled the tempo for much of the game. 2.) They slowed down the ball in transition. Remember, the best way to nullify the opponent's fast break is to take care of the ball. The Lakers didn't do that well against Utah (18 turnovers) but did a better job against a team that they couldn't afford to give too many extra possessions to in OKC (13 turnovers).
Yes, the Lakers are still turning the ball over too frequently averaging 15.4 per game. However, it looks like that Mike D'Antoni has basically given the keys to the offense to Kobe and Steve Nash. So for the past 2 games, the Laker offense has been strictly relegated to a halfcourt offense. No more Pau Gasol spotting up from 3-point land. No more quick shots (well, for the most part anyway). It's just your basic halfcourt set albeit initiating the offense through Bryant in the post rather than Howard or Gasol.
What I like about the "new" offense is it puts the Lakers back to a halfcourt team as it should've been from the start. But the kicker is, it looks different and less predictable for the defense to deal with because the initiator isn't a point guard, and it attacks the defense from a semi-isolation set that, from Kobe's hands, allows for multiple spots on the court for the Lakers to score as we're seeing now. And by running this type of offense, D'Antoni wouldn't have to worry so much about which big, Pau or Dwight, should be on the floor because it's a read-and-react type of offense (or it's a version of the Princeton offense Mike Brown should've ran).
And for Gasol fans, this offense actually makes Pau a necessity for the team because it relies on his entire skills set. Watching him on the floor with Howard on Sunday, the Thunder could not send Serge Ibaka to double on Kobe because they know Gasol is too smart and too good of a player on offense to not make the right play when the ball gets to him. In a way, he acts like a secondary initiator on the floor. Same goes if Earl Clark replaces Pau. Clark has shown that he can make the right decision and will shoot the ball if given a good look at the basket.
Going back to Sunday's game, the defensive effort they put on Russell Westbrook (27% shooting) and, to a degree, Kevin Durant (38% shooting) on Sunday is a very promising sign of what Laker fans could start seeing in the games ahead. But the road to recovery for the Lakers is still a long, up-hill drive, and they have to prove that they can sustain this new-found passion and focus in the games ahead.
Still, Bryant has brought back excitement and a sense of direction of where the team can get on the same page together that were missing since the start of the season. In a team with this much talent on both sides of the floor and this much competitive players, that could very well be enough to turn the Lakers around for good.