Usually the Christmas Day game featuring the Lakers is a battle of two contenders trying to prove their championship mettle. A preview of things possibly to come in June. At least that’s the way it’s been the last few years watching LA against the Bulls, Heat, Cavs and Celtics.
But this year was very different. This year the Lakers were a sub .500 team, not trying to prove they could win in June, but trying to prove they could win… anything. It had gotten so bad that one of my Laker fan mates was recently doing the calculations to figure out the winning percentage LA would need from here on to make the playoffs. Yes, desperate time indeed.
Of course, there were plenty of other sub-plots to keep the impartial NBA fan interested. The two league-leading scorers, Melo and Kobe, going head to head in a potentially mouth-watering shootout. D’Antoni going up against his old team who is clearly doing much better without him. Dwight lining up against the reigning DPOY in Chandler who stole the award from him (in Dwight’s opinion and also in reality). And of course Steve Nash in his second game back, giving us even more glimpses of the full potential his Lakers team possesses.
All up, this game didn’t disappoint. It was tight, it was intense, the stars played well, and it was damn exciting to watch. In other words, the perfect Christmas Day game.
Early and often the Lakers looked switched on, and their offence was being executed extremely well by Nash and also Gasol who had his hand in a few early assists. Though the sample size is small, it’s hard to deny that the selflessness and flair of Nash isn’t rubbing off against his teammates. And when you think about it, it’s easy to see why because Kobe, Gasol and even Dwight are all very good passers of the ball and can make lightning quick decisions.
Kobe was getting up his shots and doing so efficiently, while Metta was blanketing Melo just about as we’ll as anyone could (seriously, World Peace is playing elite defense again at a level I haven’t seen him at in at least a couple of years… you can’t underestimate the importance of that come Durant/LeBron, if they get there).
Despite all this the Knicks were right in the game, trailing only by two at the half. This was thanks in part to JR Smith who the Lakers just couldn’t handle, and also the Lakers bench who apart from Metta was completely ineffective. Things got really interesting in the third when Melo finally awoke, dropping 17 and extending the Knicks lead to 8 a couple of times. I thought the game was ready to be blown open at a few stages when Melo was catching fire, but to their credit the Lakers got stops when they needed to and lead by Kobe, scored when they needed to. This never-say-die attitude is becoming a bit of a Laker hallmark this season, most evident against the Warriors a couple of nights ago but even visible during a few of their losses that could have been blow-outs.
It was the fourth quarter that really captured my attention though. The Lakers were simply the smarter and better executing team, and it’s amazing to see Nash’s impact in the final minutes. More accurately, it’s amazing to see the deference of Kobe to Nash in the final minutes. On a couple of late possessions, Kobe had the ball, tightly defended, with his gaze clearly locked on Nash, looking for direction. I have not seen Kobe Bryant do that in a long time. Usually he is staring down the defender or the basket, weighing up his options to strike. This was something completely different. This was Kobe looking to Nash to drive them home, and for the second game in a row, he did.
This speaks volumes for the trust Kobe Bryant has in Steve Nash. It also says something about the lack of good point guards Kobe has played with during his career. In crunch time, Kobe has always been the best playmaker on the Lakers squad.
Not any more. Now he has a little help, if he’s willing to embrace it.