Even though the Los Angeles Lakers have only won two games in a row, the way they've built this brief streak implies they may have figured out some of their issues.
The first thought that pops into your head when you read the box score is that these look like the numbers we originally thought the Lakers would put up.
On Jan. 25, each of L.A.'s four stars hit at least half of their shots en route to a 102-84 drubbing of the Utah Jazz. Two days later, the Lakers took down the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-96, a statement win which alerted the NBA that this team might be finding its juggernaut form.
Of course, the second thought immediately following that is that this is a laughably small sample size.
Two games do not undo all of the drama, tension and turmoil that preceded them. We're still weeks away from knowing for sure whether or not this is the new normal for the Lakers.
However, this improved play coincides with a couple of major developments in Los Angeles. There isn't sufficient statistical support to call this a turnaround yet, but the circumstantial evidence indicates that this is a whole new ballclub.
Even if the individual stars have all been better, it was clear in the first half of the season that poor strategy and chemistry were the real reasons behind their team's woes.
Let's start with the tactical issue.
Neither of the Lakers' head coaches this season, from Mike Brown to Mike D'Antoni, has understood how to utilize the big man tandem of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Considering Howard was the crown jewel of the 2012 offseason, it made sense that Los Angeles parked him in the low post and let him do his work. That moved Gasol up to the high post, where the Lakers hoped he could continue to make an impact with his mid-range jumper and superb passing.
The failure of this positioning was twofold.
If Howard were at full strength, he would demand extra attention around the basket, giving Gasol more open room to operate. However, back and shoulder issues have hampered Howard throughout the season, allowing defenses to attempt to contain him with just one man.
That has left Gasol well-contested away from the rim, which is not a strong position for him.
In the past, Gasol was able to draw defenders towards him when he drifted away from the basket, then pass to teammates cutting into the empty lane. When defenses tried to take away the pass, Gasol would knock down the open 15-footer.
With Howard filling the lane and the high post covered, Gasol's options became limited. Defenses always took the drive away first. Howard took away the pass himself. That left only shots away from the rim, which Gasol has hit at career-low rates from every distance inside the arc, per Hoopdata.
Though it wasn't an ideal solution, there was only one way to solve this problem: Separate the big men.
When D'Antoni permanently moved Gasol to the bench, he made a point to say that it was a strategic decision, not an indictment of his play (via ESPN):
"We got to go small," D'Antoni said before the Lakers played the Chicago Bulls on Monday. "That's just the way it is. It's after he had a great game -- it's not him. I talked to him about it and he understands where we have to go and we got to do it."
In the four games since, Gasol has averaged 24.9 points and 14.0 rebounds per 48 minutes and hit 54 percent of his shots as an enormous sixth man.
Again, small sample size, but it makes sense.
As a member of the second unit, Gasol hasn't had to play alongside Howard as much, freeing up space in his comfort zone. That's why his bench splits aren't just a significant step up from his starter numbers, but are also right in line with his per-48-minute numbers in previous seasons.
Gasol's absence from the starting lineup also makes everyone else's roles easier.
The spacing is improved for Kobe Bryant to operate, Steve Nash has one less star to facilitate and Dwight has the paint to himself. Suddenly, the ego-filled Lakers seem to have found balance.
Of course, the benching came four games ago, not two. The streak only started after an airing of grievances that seems to have gotten everyone on the same page.
According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kobe acknowledged he could be "difficult to play with," offensive guru D'Antoni preached a defense-first mentality and Howard vowed to stop complaining and focus on stepping up his game.
It's not as though everyone suddenly saw the light and started singing Kumbaya, but the results have been promising.
Is it a coincidence, that after owning up to his shortcomings as a teammate, Kobe recorded more assists in the past two games (28) than shots (22)? Or that, with the Laker stars each getting a share of the offense, Metta World Peace led the team in field-goal attempts in both wins?
Gasol's move to the bench certainly facilitated the lineup harmony, but players needed a come-to-peace moment to really make things change. It looks like that fateful team meeting did the trick.
Now the question is, how long will this last?
Kobe won't pass that much forever, nor will Howard be content forever and so on and so forth. Even with all the agendas put aside, someone is going to start saying "me first" again at some point.
However, Kobe is the ultimate competitor, while Nash, Howard and D'Antoni are all chasing a ring. As long as this team keeps winning, none of them are going to mess with the formula.
So even if this particular winning streak ends after two, the Lakers have all the pieces in place to finally turn their tumultuous season around.
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