The Lakers can’t win games right now with Kobe Bryant. Even if he’s started practicing, Bryant’s still finishing up his rehab on his left Achilles tendon. The Lakers can’t win games right now with Steve Nash. Nerve issues in his back will keep him out for at least another week, and he hasn’t yet proved this season he can play at the same elite level that will earn him a future Hall of Fame nod. The Lakers can’t win games right now with Dwight Howard. He has bolted to Houston, and the Lakers never showed the necessary chemistry when he was here to maximize such talent.
But as the Lakers showed in their 114-99 victory Sunday over the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center, they can compensate for such key injuries and a drop-off in talent by representing a sum greater than their parts.
“Our identity is we’ll have to play full out for 48 minutes,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When Kobe comes back, things change. We’re okay. But we need to play as good as we can and get as many wins as we can.”
The Lakers obviously have struggled in that department, still fielding a 5-7 record and a 12th place standing in the Western Conference. But the Lakers provided a pretty clear blueprint on how they can overachieve this season.
Jordan Hill reached career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (17) simply through his never-ending pursuit to provide energy. He showed more confidence using his footwork and hook shots in the post. Hill even canned a few mid-range jumpers.
“I’m getting more confidence as I step out on the floor,” Hill said. “When I go out there, I just go after it.”
That’s why D’Antoni has often described Hill as the best example of how a player with an undefined role can suddenly have one. After all, Hill started his career with the New York Knicks under D’Antoni in a somewhat precarious position. After averaging only four points in 25 minutes through 24 games in New York at the beginning of the 2008-09 season, Hill was then traded to the Houston Rockets with Jared Jefferies before the trade deadline as part of a three-team deal that resulted in the Rockets’ Tracy McGrady going to the Knicks.
Four years later, Hill has forced D’Antoni to soften his preference for a small lineup over a bigger lineup, providing endless energy and showing some promise with an enhanced post game.
“He’s playing as hard as he can play,” D’Antoni said. “He’s got talent. He keeps getting better.”
The same can be said for plenty of others.
Steve Blake’s 16 assists marked the fourth consecutive game he reached double digits in that category by displaying plenty of qualities that show why D’Antoni always considered him such a great fit for his system.
Blake threw alley-oop lobs to Wesley Johnson. Blake found Jodie Meeks open both behind the perimeter and off backdoor cuts. Blake fed the hot hands of Nick Young at the top of the key and the hot hands of Hill inside. On top of that, Blake scrapped for every loose ball.
There’s a reason why Blake seems to play as if his playing time depended on it. He toiled away his first two seasons with the Lakers uncomfortable running the triangle offense. His time with D’Antoni blossomed last year, but the shelf life diminished because of various groin and hamstring ailments that sidelined him for 37 games and two postseason appearances.
“For me personally, that’s how I’ve stuck around. I have to play that way,” Blake said. “I’m not overly athletic compared to the other guys on the floor. I just have to compete as hard or harder than anybody to try to be out there. It’s the way I play, Jordan plays, everyone played today. It has to be in your DNA.”
For at least one night, the Lakers showed that.
They closed out the third quarter on a 10-0 run, thanks to Nick Young scoring off an open drive, three-pointer and jumper. Jordan Farmar topped that off with his own jumper. The Lakers continued feeding off that momentum by hustling.
“I’m coming off and playing with the mindset to go hard,” said Young, whose 19 points on 7 of 13 shooting marked his fourth consecutive game he posted double-digit efforts off the bench. “I know my team needs me know to get buckets. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Young has still done that despite losing his starting position. He’s maintained his smile. Young openly talks about becoming the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate. D’Antoni has noted Young has actually tried in offsetting his deeply-rooted defensive deficiencies.
“We have great individual talent, but it’s going to take all of us in working in unision together to be successful,” Blake said. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose. You’ve seen that happen on certain nights. When you see us clicking as a group, you can see how good we can really be. It’s fun.”
Yes, the Lakers showed plenty of inconsistency in losses to Golden State, San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota and Denver for various reasons. They don’t play consistent defense on hot three-point shooters (Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Minnesota’s Kevin Martin). They can’t handle other team’s frontlines (New Orlean’s Anthony Davis, Minnesota’s Kevin Love, Denver’s Timofey Mozgov, Memphis’ Zach Randolph). They can’t close out close games (San Antonio, Memphis). They don’t show up to ones period (Dallas, New Orleans). Yes, the Lakers also have inconsistency with three-point shooting and shuffling rotations.
But with an ironed out rotation, the Lakers absorbed Detroit’s frontline in Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond combining for 49 points by compensating everywhere else.
“It’s been a great group to work with – they want this and want it bad,” D’Antoni said. “They want to play hard. They have been. When you have guys get comfortable and in the right spots and they start feeling good about themselves and the team, the energy goes up.”
And so does the Lakers’ win total.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org