CHICAGO – The guy in purple and gold with the nifty Nike low-cuts, playing shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, tormented Chicago all evening. He scored 17 points in 20 minutes in the first half, coolly drained three free throws near the end of regulation to tie, then scored five of the Lakers’ seven points in overtime.
The Bulls’ point guard, meanwhile, was just as busy, scoring 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting – and an uncommonly hot 5-of-7 from the arc – to lead Chicago to a two-point victory. He didn’t get to the foul line all that much (2-of-3) and his four assists were matched or surpassed by four teammates. But the Bulls need scoring these days from the guy dominating the basketball, so the point guard gave them that.
Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose? Nope. Not unless you squinted really, really hard, at which point you might have mistaken crew chief Joey Crawford for George Clooney.
It was Nick Young and D.J. Augustin, respectively, on Understudy Night at United Center Monday. They took on the roles normally played by the more famous-but-injured stars and nailed those performances that it drove some of the conversation afterward.
“I can’t play like Kobe. There’s only one Kobe, right?” said Young, who had 29 points against Toronto 24 hours earlier and has scored 28 or more in three of his last four games.
A couple teammates within ear shot started to react to that storyline. Lakers big man Jordan Hill, dressing a few feet away, laughed and said, “Kobe gets dimes, he gets assists. He gets rebounds.”
“Kobe’s been a great mentor to me,” Young said, sounding a little embarrassed. “Just telling me all kinds of things during games. That’s been unbelievable for me this whole year, learning from one of the greatest players to play this game.”
Denials aside, the apparent ease with which Young and Augustin have stepped into their teams’ voids has some folks asking that age-old NBA question: Individual talent or system? No one is suggesting that either has swiped the superhero cape out of Bryant’s and Rose’s closets quite yet, but this is more than Little Man clomping around in Dad’s shoes. Both came off the bench Monday but played starters’ minutes, which will keep coming.
If Young can parlay a half season of some on-court and more off-court wisdom from Bryant into 29 points a game, if Augustin can air-drop into Chicago seven weeks ago, learn Rose’s lines and hits his marks at game time, there is more going on here than impersonations.
“I know Coach [Tom Thibodeau] is just giving me ultimate confidence and running a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, which I feel comfortable with,” Augustin said. “That’s what I’ve been known for.”
It’s no small feat for Young to find his scoring opportunities within Mike D’Antoni‘s game plan each night for the Lakers, though having Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and even Xavier Henry sidelined has cleared the way lately. Augustin’s responsibilities for Chicago include running the offense and finding open teammtes in their spots.
But then, Nate Robinson plugged the Rose hole last season to great effect. Augustin has done it without a training camp, on the fly, with a team freshly demoralized by another Rose knee injury.
“D.J.’s playing great basketball for us,” center Joakim Noah said. “He’s playing really confident basketball right now. He’s a good fit. He makes the right play all the time. The right pass. The big shots. He can really shoot the ball.
“We need scoring. And he’s been doing a good job of just getting guys the right shot, and scoring as well.”
In his past six games, Augustin has averaged 18.0 points, 7.0 assists and 2.8 assists. Rose, in the 10 games he logged before going down with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, had worked back to 15.9 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.2 rpg.
“All I’m thinking about right now is just going out and playing hard,” Augustin said. “Whatever Thibs runs, whatever plays he runs, I’m just trying to run it and do the best I can. Like I said, he runs a lot of pick-and-roll stuff. That’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s working for us.”
Augustin, in fact, said, he is feeling Charlotte-comfortable again. That’s the last place he played this much — 29.3 minutes per game in 2011-12 with the Bobcats, on par with the 29.4 he’s averaging for the Bulls — and the last place he was this productive.
“I didn’t get an opportunity the last two years in my career,” Augustin said. “When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years at Toronto and Indiana, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I play a lot of minutes, I think I play pretty good.”
Young’s minutes — with Bryant limited to a six-game cameo appearance in December between his Achilles tendon comeback and his current left knee fracture — are up to 28.7, his most since 2010-11 in Washington. His per-36 stats — 21.4 points, 16.8 FGA — are personal highs, if not at Kobe levels.
“Each guy’s an individual,” D’Antoni said before tipoff Monday. “Nick does a great job. He’s got a lot of energy, he brings a lot of energy. He’s a good guy. A good teammate.
“When he gets the ball in his hands, he can score. That’s what he does. You can see the joy on his face when he’s playing and he has no fear. So the fourth quarter is no problem, but it could be the first quarter, second quarter. He’s still coming at you.”
It’s the NBA equation: Talent plus confidence equals success. At the moment, it happens to be coming for the Lakers and the Bulls, respectively, from familiar spots.