Once Steve Blake steps onto the court, he morphs into a different person.
No more Mr. Nice Guy who relentlessly praises teammates and coaches. Instead, Blake becomes the fiery competitor that hustles for loose balls, looks for open teammates and cans shots with usually dependable accuracy. So much that Kobe Bryant has called him “Vino Blanco,” a twist on the nickname he’s given himself.
How to explain the identity switch?
“I’m just competitive,” Blake said. “I don’t like to lose. So I really want to beat everybody every time I’m out. That’s the way we got to play. So that’s what I do.”
Blake epitomizes how the Lakers (5-7) are trying to overachieve beyond a 12th place ranking in the Western Conference by becoming the sum greater than the individual parts. Blake also has outlined how the Lakers can make the most of their tenuous backcourt as they wait for the pending return of Kobe Bryant (left Achilles tendon) and Steve Nash (back). Mix in a bit of Mamba clutchness with a game-winner against Houston and a pinch of Nash playmaking everywhere else, and you have Blake, an unassuming personality who’d rather let his game provide all the talking.
Well, it’s speaking pretty loudly.
Blake ranks eighth in the NBA averaging 7.2 assists per game. He enters the Lakers’ game tonight against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center logging at least 10 assists in four consecutive games. And his 16-assists in the Lakers’ 114-99 win Sunday over the Detroit Pistons marked the first Laker to log at least 15 assists in a game since Gary Payton did so Jan. 17, 2004. That milestone puts Blake in elite company among other Lakers, including Magic Johnson (having a career-high 21 assists Dec. 16, 1990 against the Indiana Pacers) and Nick Van Exel (23 assists Jan. 5, 1997 against the former Vancouver Grizzlies).
Not a bad way to fill in a hobbled Nash, whose health struggles have hurt him showing off his Hall of Fame credentials that’s made him earn a fourth place ranking on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
“If you have someone who is wide open, you go get him the ball,” Blake said. “But when someone is hot, it’s your job as a point guard to know that and run a play for him or put him in a position to get him a shot. I’m always keeping that in mind.”
Blake’s also keeping several other things in mind.
A season after sitting out 37 games last season because of overlapping abdominal and groin issues, Blake ranks fourth in the NBA in both total minutes (383) and total miles run on the court (28.6 miles).
Blake may have missed a potential game-winning shot in the Lakers’ 89-86 loss last week to the Memphis Grizzlies. But Blake showed he’s both not afraid of and capable of making such a critical shot when his game-winning three pointer propelled the Lakers two weeks ago over the Houston Rockets, his dagger going against Dwight Howard, no less. Blake’s 9.8 points per game average may come on only 39.8 percent shooting, but he has made 46.4 percent of his three-point field-goal attempts thus far.
“He plays hard every night,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said at an appearance Wednesday at the Lakers’ All-Access event at Staples Center, hosted by the LA Sports & Entertainment Commission. ‘He wouldn’t be in the league this long if he didn’t. Just look at his body.”
“I can still dunk,” Blake jokingly insisted.
A few days before, the scrawny 6’3,” 175-pound veteran conceded the same to explain his 10-year longevity.
“I’ve stuck around because I have to play that way,” Blake said. “I’m not overly athletic compared to other guys on the floor. So I have compete as hard or harder than anybody to try to be out there. That’s just the way I play.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com