Thursday against Minnesota, the Lakers were boosted by 52 points from the bench. 17 from Antawn Jamison, 16 from Jodie Meeks, 13 from Steve Blake, and then six more in garbage time from Robert Sacre and Devin Ebanks (who, as it turns out, is in fact allowed to enter a game).
Quite an outburst for a team averaging 27.4 a night off the pine, but not a total shock. As a group, over the last Since the All-Star Game, 33.0.
So the trend line is heading up.
That level of production — low 30″s every night — still won”t put the Lakers” bench near the league leaders (Dallas and the L.A. Clippers average 40.6 points a game), but represents a massive improvement over where they”ve been, certainly last year when they were the least productive crew of substitutes in the NBA measured in ppg, and had the league”s third-worst efficiency differential. The 31.1 ppg figure I mentioned? Good for 17th, and 20th in differential. Their collective numbers since the break, 16th in ppg, 18th in differential. Not exactly world-beating numbers, except on the season L.A.”s bench is ranked 27th in points per game, 28th in differential.
By jumping from the bottom third into the middle, the Lakers are actually making substantial progress. I”m willing to say there”s a relationship between these numbers and the 12-5 run since the Big Memphis Meeting.
Since the injury to Pau Gasol forced Earl Clark in to the starting lineup on a nightly basis, Mike D”Antoni has settled into a three-man bench rotation, and individually each performed well in February:
- Antawn Jamison: 13.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 48.5% shooting, 43.2% 3-point.
- Jodie Meeks: 9.2 ppg, 41.8% 3-point.
- Steve Blake: 5.8 ppg, 3.4 apg, .9 turnovers, good for a 3.7/1 a/to ratio. For reference purposes, as a full season figure that would be good for 3rd in the NBA.
Blake is a much, much better pick-and-roll player than Chris Duhon, and is also able to probe a defense without giving up his dribble, both skills meshing with D”Antoni”s offense. His return to the lineup, and then to better form, is one of a few factors D”Antoni noted following Thursday”s win.
“I think (Blake”s return has) helped. I”ve also settled down with these guys and given them roles to play. Before, we were trying to find who could do it and who couldn”t. I didn”t know everybody, and how they would fit. With Steve Nash coming back and Steve Blake, it helps these guys. (With other guys) Jodie (Meeks”) defense is really good. I know he made shots in the second half and didn”t make any in the first, but his defense is getting a lot better,” he said.
Blake”s return, says D”Antoni, has also influenced the uptick in Antawn Jamison”s production (I write more about that, here). As for Jamison himself, “He”s the type of basketball player that I love,” D”Antoni said. Certainly a nice change given the difficulty those two had getting on the same page. But Jamison cuts, moves without the ball, makes good decisions, and is easy for his teammates to play with.
All stuff D”Antoni preaches in his system.
The hope is the success can become, at least to some degree, self-sustaining.
“We”re playing with the ultimate confidence,” Jamison said of the bench. “We”re relying on eac other. We know what our roles are. Myself, Blake, and Jodie, and Earl (Clark, a starter but someone who runs a lot with the reserves), whoever”s out there. We have pretty good chemistry now, and that”s been the one thing that”s hindered us throughout the season as far as trying to get a group of guys that really complement each other. Now you”re starting to see that we can do that.”
D”Antoni”s confidence in the group is obvious, as well. He”s given Jamison and Meeks minutes in significant, late-game moments, and has started leaving Blake on the floor even when Nash is in.
Clarity in roles helps, too. Each of the three understands his job. Blake: Go direct the offense. Jamison: Scorem and not just as a spot-up shooter, as had been the case for too much of the season. Meeks: Spread the floor. If/when Clark returns to the bench, his job will be pretty simple, too: D up and rebound aggressively.
The Lakers aren”t going to have what would ever be considered a high-powered bench. They”re not built that way. But remember the expectations coming into the season. The hope, after signing Jamison and Meeks to go along with Jordan Hill and Blake, was that they”d be average. Average, after all, would be a major improvement. And generally speaking, it”s what they”re getting, even without Hill and Clark there to bolster the group. Some nights even a little better.
For the Lakers to sustain their playoff push, it needs to stay that way.