Mike D'Antoni draws up a winner in his first Lakers victory (Getty Images)
During the first four minutes of Mike D'Antoni's first game as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, Pau Gasol took an unafraid long jumper and canned it, Metta World Peace grabbed two steals and initiated two successful fast breaks, and a series of quick-hit half-court possessions with good spacing and even better ball movement resulted in a 10-0 start. Suddenly, the opponent didn't matter; it was Showtime II, and the Lakers were initiating that Big Turnaround that we'd been waiting for since flaming out on opening night against Dallas.
The problem, from there, is that all the old 2012-13 Laker frustrations soon set in. And opponents do matter. This one was the similarly styled and highly compensated Brooklyn Nets, and the Lakers had to gut out a tough 95-90 win in the final minutes. Kobe Bryant was the hero down the stretch, hitting 8 of 10 free throws over the last seven minutes; but he (shooting 1 for 5 in the fourth) and the rest of his Laker teammates struggled mightily to hold off a Brooklyn team in the midst of its lone California stretch of road games.
Even the good initial play — Bryant hitting his first five shots in spectacular fashion — was worrying. Bryant was forced into a series of long jumpers and bailouts, making them at a rate that rarely sustains. It didn't, as he missed 7 of 10 shots over the next three quarters. Dwight Howard, as has been his custom all season, somehow managed to look like 80 percent of his old self even while throwing down breathtaking dunks and finishing with 23 points and 15 rebounds. The Lakers, as it has been for three weeks now, still look like a massive work in progress even in victory.
None of this is news to D'Antoni, who, despite getting to watch his new team from afar since joining the Lakers in the wee hours of Nov. 11, will still need weeks to implement his screen-and-roll-heavy offensive sets, even after hobbled D'Antoni favorite Steve Nash returns from a fractured left fibula. Former interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff remains on the sidelines, as D'Antoni fields a staff of assistants either culled from his past (brother Dan D'Antoni) or Laker stalwarts (longtime assistant Chuck Person), as D'Antoni (with his surgically repaired knee) appeared to be an observer more than anything in his first game from the head coach's chair.
The same chair, literally, that former Lakers coach Phil Jackson sat in as he recovered from numerous back and hip operations.
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The Laker players, because they're hip to the operation, at times effortlessly utilized parts of a D'Antoni system that they'd been playing against for years during their new coach's time with both the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks (and, in Kobe's case, D'Antoni's lone season with the Denver Nuggets, during the 1999 campaign).
Bernie Bickerstaff has handled the power transition with his typical humor and tact (Getty Images)The team made a point to go quickly into pick-and-roll basketball early in possessions, and Bryant once again was fantastic in initiating the offense even if he didn't rack up gaudy assist totals (five on the night, just under his average on the year). Gasol actually led the team in assists with seven, including a series of lovely dump-offs to Howard — still possibly the most fearsome dunker in the NBA, but one that is clearly hobbled by offseason surgery to repair his injured back.
Though Brooklyn didn't exactly burn up the nets on its way toward 90 points, the Lakers' defensive misgivings allowed for numerous open looks as the night moved along. Deron Williams' ability to work past his initial defenders (first Darius Morris, then Chris Duhon) created good spacing and better looks for his cohorts. Brook Lopez absolutely destroyed Gasol both in the face-up and driving game, finishing with 23 points and adding three assists. His passing work, with the Lakers flailing as they recovered defensively, even spurred NBA TV analyst Chris Webber to rank Lopez (who entered the game having just dished 12 assists in his previous 13 NBA contests) as one of the league's best passing big men. Even Webber, perhaps the best studio analyst in all of sports, can get a few wrong from time to time.
Miserable free-throw shooting, something even D'Antoni's offensive touch might not be able to improve upon, kept Los Angeles from pulling away. The Lakers were shooting in the mid-40s at the stripe even before Brooklyn went to a hack-a-Howard strategy in the fourth quarter. Dwight made half his attempts after the intentional fouls, but a one-point-per-possession ratio will rank you last in the NBA if kept up for an entire season. It took Avery Johnson's abandonment of the strategy (minutes before he had to, NBA-legally) and Bryant's ability to get to the stripe to end that drought.
Even after 48 minutes of play under D'Antoni, though, the Lakers remain right where we left them. Still relying too heavily on Bryant as he enjoys what possibly has been a career year thus far. Still waiting for Howard to return in full and dominate defensively. Still figuring out what to do with Gasol. Still worrying about that bench, that point guard defense, and still waiting on Nash to become comfortable with the Laker offense (be it because of injury or initiation).
The Lakers knew all of these issues would be in place entering 2012-13; the team just didn't think the same issues would remain some three weeks and three head coaches into their season. D'Antoni's presence, though warming, won't act as a cure-all.
The low point has passed, though. The team was served with both a wakeup call and a new coach that they respect to no end in the season's first month — months before these games really mean anything. That, in and of itself, should be enough to get Laker fans through the growing pains that are sure to persist even as their team works its way toward the new year.
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