LOS ANGELES -- Christmas Day hasn't always been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers. Even as they were winning five championships over the past 14 years, the Lakers were 5-9 on Dec. 25.
Even Kobe Bryant, who always expects to win, had almost come to expect a loss shortly after opening presents with his family.
Things would be different this time around. After doing their fair share of losing before Christmas, the Lakers were ready to turn around their season on Dec. 25 this season. With Steve Nash and Pau Gasol back in the lineup, the Lakers not only beat the New York Knicks 100-94 but also extended their winning streak to five games. The Lakers are now 14-14 and back at .500 for the first time since Mike D'Antoni's first loss as Lakers coach on Nov. 21. They are also just two games behind the No. 6 playoff seed in the Western Conference. In other words, the reports of the Lakers' demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Metta World Peace’s role
Since D'Antoni became the coach of the Lakers, no player has had a more wide-ranging role than Metta World Peace. Whether it's starting, coming off the bench, being a lockdown defender or a spot-up shooter, D'Antoni has tinkered with World Peace's role. Considering some players have completely fallen out of the rotation (i.e., Antawn Jamison), it's actually not the worst thing in the world for him. D'Antoni knows the Lakers need a spark off the bench, and he believes World Peace can be that spark. Against the Knicks, World Peace provided an early spark, scoring 16 points in the second quarter on 4-of-4 shooting, and hitting all three of his attempts from 3-point range. D'Antoni actually went to World Peace quicker than he had anticipated since Darius Morris, who was guarding Carmelo Anthony, was getting destroyed. World Peace was slightly more successful but was just as important on the offensive end, finishing with 20 points and seven rebounds, before he fouled out.
Steve Nash factor
Everyone on the Lakers kept preaching patience while the team struggled and lost games. Players and coaches said that when Nash returned to the lineup, all the pieces to the puzzle would finally fit. He was the quarterback of an offense that had been run without a quarterback. It hasn't taken long to see how much of a difference Nash can make. Nash finished the game with 16 points and 11 assists and was a coach on the floor, constantly talking to Dwight Howard and Gasol about their place on the court and on pick-and-rolls. Everything the Lakers do flows better when Nash is on the court. He not only finds players open and gets them the ball quickly in transition, but his ability to protect the ball also has meant fewer turnovers and fewer transition buckets for the opposition. While Nash might not be the best defender, the fact that the Lakers no longer have to run back on defense as much after a turnover is critical.
Gasol and Howard co-existing
The biggest challenge for D’Antoni is getting Howard and Gasol to co-exist on the court. His offense doesn't naturally lend itself to a pair of 7-footers who like the ball in the post, but he will have to find a way to make it work if the Lakers are to turn around their season and be championship contenders. One of his solutions is playing Howard and Gasol separately during the game, which he did against the Knicks before finishing the game with both players on the court. Howard finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, while Gasol finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. Gasol's running dunk at the end of the game not only sealed the win for the Lakers but also may be a turning point for both Gasol and the team. Both Howard and Gasol contend that they can play together and that they are getting more comfortable in their roles. That's a good thing, because the Lakers are simply not as good when one of them is on the bench.