ATLANTA — Amid all the Lakers’ gloomy circumstances, an important figure arrived to help the team temporarily stop worrying about their issues.
It started with Nick Young talking trash during his first morning shootaround since breaking his right thumb six weeks ago by proclaiming himself as the game’s best three-point shooter ever.
It continued with Young’s 17 points off the bench both securing a Lakers’ 114-109 victory Tuesday over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena and ensuring more offensive balance outside of Kobe Bryant.
It ended with Young taking nearly complete credit for the Lakers (2-9) ending a four-game losing streak and picking up their first road win of the 2014-15 season.
“It’s like my swag rubbed off on everybody,” Young said. “It’s unbelievable.”
But in a way, it actually is believable.
Young’s initial absence represented one of many significant vacancies, including season-ending injuries to 40-year-old point guard Steve Nash (back) and rookie forward Julius Randle (broken right leg). Lakers forward Ryan Kelly has only played three games amid endless injuries to both hamstrings. Wayne Ellington took an indefinite absence last week after his father was murdered in Philadelphia.
That does not even cover the Lakers X’s and O’s concerns. Lakers coach Byron Scott has lamented the disconnect between his time spent on revamping the team’s defense toward the team’s league-worst ranking in that category. The Lakers, including Scott, have celebrated Bryant’s league-leading 27.4 points per game average after playing only six games last season because of injuries to his left Achilles tendon and left knee. But the Lakers have shown divided feelings over whether Bryant’s field-goal attempts (23.8) and shooting percentage (a career-low 38.9 percent) merely represents a by-product of the team’s offensive inconsistency or contributes to the imbalance.
But during his return, Young provided some joy in a season that has often lacked it. He helped mitigate some problems that have left the Lakers dragging.
“That’s the thing that I love about Nick,” Scott said. “He brings positive energy. He’s an energy giver, not taker, and that’s what we need.”
Do the Lakers ever.
Bryant’s 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting may have featured some vintage moments, such as a left handed hook shot and countless fadeaway jumpers that eventually propelled him to become the fourth NBA player to reach the 32,000 career point plateau. But Bryant looked more efficient because he had a perfect wingmate in Young to pick up the scoring slack.
Bryant set Young up for a 25-foot three-pointer that he canned just before the first quarter expired. Young nailed another three-pointer with 28 seconds left in the third quarter. After backing down against Thabo Sefolosha in the post one-on-one, Bryant then connected with Young on the opposite corner for a three-point shot late in the fourth quarter. Though Young would only hit one of three foul shots for the 109-104 lead with 44.8 seconds left, the play showed Bryant trusted his playmaking.
“You know I can score. The ball somehow finds me. He knows it because I talk so much trash,” Young said of Bryant. “Everybody has a chance to get going. My thing was to bring energy and did my best to talk trash and get everybody playing.”
Young proved more than willing to share his trash talking with reporters. He ranked himself as the best three-point shooter ahead of Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson and Larry Bird. Young also claimed ignorance toward Scott’s career 37 percent mark from three-point range.
“It lifts the spirit of the guys,” Bryant said. “It keeps things light. I think it’s great. That’s great leadership from that standpoint.”
But Bryant seemed happier about Young for another reason.
All season long, Bryant stressed that his teammates need to match his aggressiveness to make plays. Bryant argued teammates cannot become afraid of denying him the ball. Bryant eventually dialed back to ensure team balance, resulting in Carlos Boozer (20 points), Jordan Hill (16 points) and Jeremy Lin (15 points). But that balance also happened because Young matched Bryant’s aggressiveness level.
“He played phenomenal. It’s a testament to his work ethic,” Bryant said. “It’s hard when you have that injury to stay in shape. But he didn’t look tired at all. He could run all day.”
Indirectly, that spurred the Lakers’ defense. Young’s arrival coupled with a prolonged film session on Monday helped the Lakers limit Atlanta to a season-low 20 first-quarter points.
“It shouldn’t be that way,” Boozer said. “We should play good defense no matter what. But we’re human.”
No one has shown more of a human touch with the Lakers than Young.
Young has challenged Scott to shooting contests that he said he has lost only to stay on his good side. Young jokingly expressed displeasure with Hill for exceeding his point total. Young even enticed Bryant to flash his so-called “Swaggy 3” dance after a few made shots.
Said Scott: “That’s what makes Nick so fun to be around.”
And the Lakers can only hope that feeling lasts.
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