OAKLAND — The early Christmas present in Steve Nash’s return initially provided a visual reminder that the Lakers still had plenty of things to fulfill on their holiday wish list.
The Lakers still couldn’t defend. They still struggled handling the ball. The Lakers still had an offense featuring too much of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers’ size advantage in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol became mute because of early foul trouble.
But as they nursed a 13-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter against a young and scrappy Warriors team off to their best start since the 1991-92 season, the Lakers suddenly revealed their character.
The Lakers’ 118-115 overtime victory Saturday over the Warriors at Oracle Arena didn’t just cement a four-game winning streak. It also forged a collective feeling that the experience made them stronger.
“We needed something everyday with something to build on,” Nash said. “You can’t build on anything without hard work and perseverance.”
Nash led the way in what Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni described as a “great win.” Nash’s 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting and nine assists helped bring new life to the offense. His three-point fadeaway with 14.9 seconds remaining also sealed the win.
But more importantly. the Lakers grinded back by featuring an assorted cast of characters. Bryant found his shooting touch by going three of six in overtime. Metta World Peace, who scored 20 bench points, made a corner 3-pointer that gave the Lakers a 108-106 lead with 24.1 seconds remaining and ultimately secured overtime. Howard remained a defensive anchor and hit two late-game free throws. Gasol hustled and set solid screens. Jordan Hill (14 points) and Jodie Meeks (12 points) provided sparks off the bench.
“We weren’t playing particularly well and I wasn’t playing particularly well,” Bryant said. “We just said that we had to go harder. It didn’t matter what the challenge was.”
The challenge looked hefty.
The Lakers entered the third quarter trailing 87-74 to a team that featured strong outside shooting in Jarrett Jack (29 points) and inside play in David Lee (20 points). The Lakers had only led by five points early in the game. And the Lakers’ various problems persisted, including turnovers (17) and poor outside shooting (27.8 percent from three-point range).
But that all changed when the Lakers opened the fourth quarter with a 14-2 run. The Lakers shot 58.3 percent from the field. They committed only two turnovers. And the Lakers appeared more balanced on offense, including Bryant (seven points), World Peace (seven), Meeks (seven) and Howard (six).
“We made it hard on ourselves early,” World Peace said. “It was Steve’s first game, but we don’t have time for excuses because we’re already in the season. We made it hard on ourselves early. But we got in a rhythm really quickly together. We actually learned each other on the court while the game was going on. There were times we were wondering why how are we going to play because everyone’s role is different. We actually hung in there. We stayed together, which is important. The ball was moving and we got right back in the game.”
As a result, the Lakers believe they’ve become closer now.
Not in the sappy way. After all, the Lakers already boast plenty of championship experience in Bryant (five), Gasol (two) and World Peace (one). But on a team that has hardly seen too many moving parts with a swift coaching change, nagging injuries and newly assembled players, the Lakers finally looked natural together.
“What we’re learning is that it doesn’t matter how much talent we have. We’ve seen that before in this league. It’s about how you put it together,” Nash said. “Our team is still trying to figure ourselves out. Our team needs games like this to hopefully build that reserve and that foundation. I wasn’t sure which way we would go tonight, but we all hung in there collectively.”
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