When the Lakers started with a 10-0 advantage, the assumption for another high-scoring contest was a safe one…until the Brooklyn Nets came out of a timeout with an 8-0 run. There was no mistaking at that point that tonight was the Lakers’ first real test under Mike D’Antoni’s guidance.
Waving to the Staples Center crowd as he was introduced for the first time as the Lakers’ head coach, D’Antoni limped slightly, but commanded thoroughly. He paced the sidelines when necessary, and called out to his players on the floor occasionally. Asked in the post-game presser if he felt any differently actually coaching out on the court, he replied, “I’ve felt differently for two weeks now.” D’Antoni was ready to coach his new team, and his team was ready to be coached by him – that much was crystal clear tonight.
With a 6-2 record, the Nets are no longer the NBA laughing stock (shoutout to the winless Washington Wizards). They are the sixth best defensive team in the league (allowing just 92.5 ppg), led by a premier floor general in Deron Williams, newly acquired scorer, Joe Johnson, and a couple of other players who habitually make things hard for the purple and gold; namely Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez.
With 16 ties and 12 lead changes, this game would not and could not be won with offensive weapons alone, especially where free throws are concerned. Tonight the Lakers needed to exercise their defensive acumen and, in the waning minutes of the game, that made all the difference.
Mike D’Antoni – Two weeks from knee replacement surgery, D’Antoni was aware of the backlash from the coaching decision that chose him over the beloved Phil Jackson. But as he has shown in the last week and a half, he’s no stranger to high-pressure situations, and debuting tonight was no exception. He’s not a man who answers in riddles or sugarcoated messages. He admitted he’s going to play the starters as much as they need to play; admitted that he has to learn to trust Kobe Bryant when it comes to checking in and out of the game; and even joked that he didn’t know who on his coaching staff was in charge of free throw shooting. Heck, he even coached the team into a solid defensive performance tonight. Coach Mike’s sure working hard to earn that ‘D’ right back into his name.
Double-Trouble – Robin Lopez may have gotten his 23 points on 11-18, not to mention seven rebounds, but the Nets could not neutralize Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. The two combined for 40 points on 15-26 from the field, 26 rebounds, 10 assists and five blocks. Howard led the game with 15 boards and Gasol led the team with his seven dimes.
Season Bests – While the Laker big men seem to garner a large part of the attention and credit because they are such a huge (pun totally intended) advantage, Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant continue to have an efficient season. MWP put in 17 points on 6-13 from the field, 4-9 from downtown, including one that sparked the team late in the final quarter, eight rebounds and a pair of steals. Averaging only 7.7 ppg last season, MWP is at 13.1 ppg so far this season and appears more confident than ever.
His final few shots notwithstanding, Kobe Bryant had another productive night with 25 points on 8-15 from the field, adding in four rebounds and five assists.
Assists/Turnovers – Assist to turnover ration? 23:11 – excellent! In the first half, the Lakers turned the ball over just half a dozen times, and in the second half, committed even less turnovers with five. For a team who was averaging over 18 turnovers to start the season, they’ve averaged only 11.7 in their last three games. The existing offense, though predicated on attaining more possessions (and the possibility of MORE turnovers), is also built on the foundation of ball movement to avoid stagnation and allowing the defense to set. The Lakers assisted on 23 of their 35 made field goals, and that’s without the luxury of a primary ball handler like Steve Nash running the offense. As long as they continue to move the ball with the intention of getting the best possible look, their turnovers should continue to decrease, or at the very worst, stabilize.
Defense – Who said Mike D’Antoni doesn’t know the meaning of defense? After allowing the Nets to score 57 points on 51% shooting, the Lakers came into the second half with an adjusted agenda. Though they themselves didn’t score at a high percentage (just 39 points on 38% from the field), they held the Nets to just 33 points and 33% in the second half. Behind by five points late in the final quarter, they hadn’t scored a field goal until Metta World Peace hit a three-pointer with just over four minutes left in the game. That seemed to set the tone for a defensive stretch where the Lakers went on a 16-6 run to win the game.
Free throws – The Lakers shot just 19-37 from the charity stripe (51.4%), and Dwight Howard was responsible for 7-19 of those. In close games such as tonight, each point absolutely matters. 18 missed freebies is too many missed points. If the Lakers hit even half of those, this game might not have been as nail-biting as it was (though, let’s face it, those are the best kind). This will probably not be the last time the Hack-A-Dwight is implemented by a team during a game. If Howard doesn’t improve his free throw shooting, he could be a detriment to the team in a pivotal game.
Bench/Starter Minutes – Other than Darius Morris, no starter played less than 38:36 minutes. Based on the reserves’ production in this game (10 points), it’s no secret why. Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison have yet to make an impact on this team. Other than Chris Duhon, who has played some solid minutes because of his familiarity of D’Antoni’s system, Meeks and Jamison are the primary back-ups for Bryant and MWP and they can’t hold a match to the starters for whom they sub in.
It was a good win for this new-look Lakers’ team, and a good victory for new coach, Mike D’Antoni to get under his belt. The opponents get more formidable as the weeks ahead show, and this next stretch of four games in five days will be a new challenge for D’Antoni and company. Though the staying power of the new system is still full of questions, one thing’s for certain, at least for now – it’s good to be over .500.