D’Antoni gives Lakers lesson in toughness

LOS ANGELES — He had major knee replacement surgery just three weeks ago. Now that he’s finally on the bench with his team, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was asked if he felt that his team was more secure with their leader on the sidelines with them.

“They haven’t seen me coach. They should be scared — they should be real scared,” a smiling D’Antoni told the media after Tuesday night’s 95-90 win over the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center. “Hopefully that’ll make them play harder.”

They did play hard down the stretch, overcoming a six-point deficit with less than five minutes to play to reach 6-5, the first time this season they have sat above .500. After the game, some players acknowledged that D’Antoni’s presence provided a boost that factored into the comeback victory for a team that had struggled to match their coach’s intensity until that final push.

“Hey, he just came back from surgery; his knee is pretty bad,” center Jordan Hill said. “You saw him out there limping and that’s total dedication to this team and this organization. He wants to win and he wants to be out there.”

Then Hill continued, at one point calling D’Antoni’s work ethic inspirational.

“Definitely,” Hill said. “He was up, limping all night while he was walking to the scorer’s table or talking to us. It was a great inspiration to know that we have a coach that is really dedicated — putting his health at risk with what’s he doing — he still wants to go out there and help us win.”

With the Lakers trailing 84-78 with 5:22 left, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard took over, combining for 13 of the team’s final 17 points. Bryant scored the Lakers’ final eight points, including the final six on six straight free throws. Howard, who was 7 of 19 from the free-throw line but still ended up with 23 points to go with 15 rebounds, hit 2 of 4 free throws and added a dunk in that final push.

It wasn’t a dominant win nor a pretty one — somewhat reminiscent of their days in the triangle offense — but Bryant and the rest of the team will take it.

“We’re obviously capable of playing that style,” said Bryant, who led all scorers with 25 points. “It’s something we can comfortably do. Tonight was one of those games that we kind of had to grind out a little bit.”

For the 6-3 Nets, a promising evening turned into a frustrating night.

“It was a tough loss for us,” said guard Deron Williams, who finished with 22 points and 10 assists. “I thought that we battled hard. They came out and tried to hit us early, and we responded. I had control of the game but missed some shots. Then they got to the line for whatever reason and won the game.”

The Lakers head out on the road for a three-game trip, beginning Wednesday night in Sacramento. Brooklyn heads north to face Golden State on Wednesday.

FIVE THOUGHTS

1: While the Lakers did not dominate on Tuesday they had in recent outings, the D’Antoni era is also a project, at least in the beginning, and the coach acknowledged that growing pains are to be expected. “We’ve got plenty of time here,” said D’Antoni. “It’s been such a short time that we’ve been here, and we don’t even have our whole team together. We’re going to be fine. I had a talented team in Phoenix, but this is the most talented team I’ve ever been around. We’re expect to win a championship.” OK, Laker fans, you can exhale now.

2: D’Antoni is showing a great deal of courage — as well as pain tolerance — by coaching in the NBA just three weeks after knee-replacement surgery. He said that if the Laker job hadn’t come along, he’d have been laid up at least another month. “Maybe two,” he added, laughing. “I’d have been in bed having my wife take care of me. I would have milked it. I’m no dummy.” When asked if he was still in pain, he laughed again. “Yeah, I’m 61 years old. I’m always in pain. The last time I wasn’t in pain, I was about 30.”

3: Howard slowly seems to be finding his comfort zone in Los Angeles. While friendly and accommodating from the minute he arrived, he wasn’t the locker room dynamo he had been in Orlando. Before games, while reporters milled around, he would often have his headphones on, going about his business getting ready for the game. For a guy noted for his playfulness and sense of humor, he was fairly reserved. Over the last couple of games, though, you can see the comedic side of Howard begin to emerge. And it’s a definite sign that he’s taking to his new team and city.

4: Prior to Tuesday night’s game, Howard was insistently telling reporters and teammates that the team needed to schedule a “throwback uniform night,” but using the real old-time unis. “It would be great,” Howard said, “wearing those short, short shorts and the real tight jerseys. I know they’ve done it here, but they didn’t do it all the way. They wore today’s jerseys and the tight shorts. Have to do both. And we all need to let our hair grow out. That would be great.” Maybe Howard has a career in the front office ahead of him — or perhaps the real-life incarnation of Jackie Moon, the fictional ABA owner played by Will Ferrell in “Semi-Pro”?

5: In case you are wondering why Howard makes a cross motion with his hands after retrieving a made or missed free throw, then kisses his fingertips and lightly touches them to the ball before giving it to the ref . . . “It’s just something I’ve always done,” said the devout Howard. “Just something personal I’ve been doing for a while.”